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Discover: Animals Can Catch Yawns

lion yawn
Image Credit: Rachel Claire; Pexels
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Ever “caught” a yawn after someone nearby yawned? As it turns out, humans aren’t the only animals that are contagious to yawning. Not only do animals yawn, many animal species, and interestingly mostly social species, are susceptible to contagious yawning. 

There’s even a good chance that you’ll catch a yawn while reading this article! 

But Why Do Humans Yawn?

baby yawning
Image Credit: Helena Lopes; Pexels

Yawns are an involuntary and powerful opening of the jaw that often, but not always, includes a deep breath of air. We often associate yawning with being tired or bored, and, accordingly, it is widely believed that we yawn for an increased flow of oxygen into our blood. However, this is not the case. 

Psychologist Robert Provine proved that yawning takes place when we change states, be it emotional, psychological, or physical. For instance, becoming tired is considered a “changing of a mental state.” 

It has also been found that feelings of anxiety increase the chances of yawning, but this is still poorly understood.

Do Animals Yawn The Same Way As Humans?

dog yawning Yawns Are Contagious
Image Credit: Isaac Taylor; Pexels

The mechanism of action of yawning appears to be the same across species; namely, as an involuntary physical reflex. Yawning carries unwanted risks for animals, though, as it renders them momentarily off-guard. 

Yawning can be triggered internally within an animal, or socially by the yawns of others. Most animals yawn due to the first reason, but only social animals, like primates and dogs, have been found to yawn socially, or “catch” a contagious yawn.

Evolution of Yawning

cat yawning
Image Credit: Eatcha; Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin himself contemplated whether yawning was an evolutionary link between man and other animals. It appears that yawning may have evolved as a way that animals prepare themselves for a change of state, such as in preparation for a fight, or to cool themselves down. 

The part of our brains most likely linked to yawning is the hypothalamus, which is also responsible for secreting hormones related to body temperature, hunger, mood, and sex drive. 

Why is Yawning Contagious?

cheetah yawning
Image Credit: Hu Chen; Unsplash

Contagious yawning appears to be associated with empathy, or the tendency of social species to mimic the actions of others. Yawns are a way that animals, including humans, prepare for a transition that affects them individually or as a group.

Contagious Yawning in Animals

monkey bonnet macaque yawning Yawns Are Contagious
Image Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman; Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, yawning is a way that animals warn and prepare their counterparts against potential danger or encourage some form of group coordination, for instance when planning to attack prey. Contagious yawning helps to increase the alertness of an entire group.

Which Animals Yawn?

hippos yawning Yawns Are Contagious
Image Credit: Chris Stenger; Unsplash

Spontaneous yawning, which is the type of yawning that is triggered by an animal’s own body, has been observed in species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish. Contagious yawning, however, has only been observed in a few species, mostly mammals. Here, we list a few:

Wolves

This social species has been observed in captivity to yawn contagiously, likely for social connection or empathy. As carnivores, wolves will also use yawning as a way to ready themselves as a group to attack prey or defend their den. 

African Lions

African lions spend upwards of 20 hours a day sleeping. Accordingly, they frequently yawn when waking up and going back to sleep. Lions may hunt solo or in prides but, as far as we can tell, do not yawn in preparation for an attack.

Monkeys

Many species of monkeys have been observed yawning. A recent study found that a type of monkey, the gelada, will even yawn after simply hearing the sound of another gelada yawning.

Rats

These rodents have long been used in labs for scientific research. Lab rats have been observed to yawn as an anxious response to mild stress, and they do this contagiously.

Birds

Several bird species, including the South African ostrich, have been observed yawning, in particular just prior to sleeping. Budgies, a social, domesticated bird species, have shown contagious yawning and stretching and remain one of the few species of birds to exhibit this behavior.

Conclusion

tiger yawning
Image Credit: sarah from San Lorenzo; Wikimedia Commons

Although much is still not yet known about yawning, it’s fascinating that something so simple and involuntary can connect us with so many diverse species. Perhaps one day yawning may even reveal the true nature of empathy among animals.

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