Scientists Tickle Apes & Conclude Laughter Is at Least 10 Million Years Old

By Eliza Strickland | June 4, 2009 5:33 pm

orangutan laughingIt’s hard to imagine having more fun in the name of science: In a new study, researchers tickled young chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and even a few human babies, and recorded the vocalizations that resulted. Primatologist Marina Davila Ross wanted to examine the evolutionary history of laughter, so she and her colleagues recorded the sounds produced when they tickled 22 great apes and 3 human babies, picking the usual sensitive spots: armpits, palms, feet, and necks.

Scientists have known that great apes vocalize when tickled at least since Charles Darwin’s time. But it was unclear whether these sounds were actually related to human laughter. Now, researchers … have concluded that laughter has been evolving in primates over the last 10 to 16 million years, since at least the last common ancestor of humans and modern great apes [Wired.com].

In the study, published in Current Biology, 11 auditory variables were measured for the 25 experimental subjects – variables such as the length of the vocalization, the in-and-out breathing patterns and the vibrations of the vocal cords. All those numbers were fed into a software program that looked for relationships between the data points. Then the computer constructed a phylogenetic tree (that is, the “family tree”) that fit the data best [MSNBC blog]. The analysis determined that human laughter is most similar to that of chimps and bonobos, the two apes most closely related to us. The laughter chart revealed that next in line, in terms of similarity, are gorillas, followed by orangutans and siamangs, which are lesser apes. “These results coincide with the genetic topology of great apes and humans,” Davila Ross said [Discovery News].

During the course of the study, Davila Ross also became convinced that it’s not anthropomorphic to characterize the great apes’ vocalizations as gleeful. The laughter “seemed like an expression of joy,” said Davila Ross…. “It seemed to me that the subjects enjoyed the attention and the positive interaction with their caretakers, and did not show much attempt to leave when the tickling session was over” [HealthDay News].

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DISCOVER: Laughter May Outlive Humans

Image: Miriam Wessels, University of Veterinary Medicine

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • http://redapes.org Richard Zimmerman

    Orangutans are critically endangered in the wild because of rapid deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations. If nothing is done to protect them, these gentle creatures could be extinct in just a few years…

    Visit the Orangutan Outreach website to learn how YOU can make a difference! http://redapes.org

    Reach out and save the orangutans

  • YouRang

    Actually laughter and tickling aren’t quite the same thing. It seems to me that this proves that tickling and the laughter response is 10 megyr old. Laughter in the absence of tickling is (?). I would guess. Nah, I’m not going to guess on that one. What these people need to do is to find out if these vocalizations are exhibited by the various apes in the absence of tickling. I refused to guess since none of the vocalizations I’ve ever heard by chimps when they grin sound remotely like laughing to me.

  • Brian M

    Funny, I’ve never much enjoyed being tickled. I don’t know anyone who does. My sadistic wife, on the other hand, enjoys my discomfort. The fact that these primates seemed to like it is, I think, proof of our superiority.

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