Researchers from UCLA have found at least 65 animals laugh after analyzing vocal play behavior.
After studying vocalization patterns, they found many animals could show “a strong similarity to human laughter.”
UCLA anthropology graduate student Sasha Winkler and UCLA professor of communication Greg Bryant published their findings in Bioacoustics.
“This work lays out nicely how a phenomenon once thought to be particularly human turns out to be closely tied to behavior shared with species separated from humans by tens of millions of years,” said UCLA professor Greg Bryant.
Cows, Seals, Rats, and Other Animals Can Laugh?
Anyone with a dog may not be surprised to learn they can laugh. We often see dogs take a playful bow, a body language that shows they are having fun. However, it goes further with play vocalizations, and the researchers found a form of laughter in animals like:
- Australian magpies
- Domestic cows
So, the next time you see a cow, will you see them differently, knowing they have play vocalizations?
Notably, Bryant says that rats are particularly prone to laughing. However, you can’t hear rats laugh without the right equipment.
“Rats produce ultrasonic play vocalizations and they sound kind of like laughs when you bring them down into our frequency range,” says Bryant.
Using a special recorder designed to record bat vocalizations, researchers hear the rats laughing.
“You can tickle rats and they love it,” he said, noting that they will “laugh up a storm” when tickled.
Below, Bryant shares some of his findings from a talk in 2017:
Why Didn’t We Notice Animals Laugh Before?
Why haven’t we noticed before? According to the study, the signals are inconspicuous compared to humans. Whereas other mammals tend to use panting noises, humans have bouts of chuckling, giggling, and otherwise guffawing.
Due to human’s relatively complex social interactions, our laughter evolved past a brief play vocalization.
“Play vocalizations in primates and other mammals often include sounds of panting, supporting the theory that human laughter evolved from an auditory cue of labored breathing during play,” states the abstract.
Interestingly, Bryant has played slowed-down recordings of humans laughing, finding most people can’t tell if the sound came from an animal or human. However, slowed down human speech always remains recognizable as human.
The Universal Cue to Stop Taking Things too Seriously
During rough-and-tumble play between animals, play sounds send the message that it’s all for fun, preventing escalation into real aggression. Similarly, people often laugh to let others know they aren’t taking things seriously.
“When we laugh, we are often providing information to others that we are having fun and also inviting others to join,” Winkler said. “Some scholars have suggested that this kind of vocal behavior is shared across many animals who play, and as such, laughter is our human version of an evolutionarily old vocal play signal.”
As part of the study, Bryant and Winkler poured through existing scientific literature referencing animal play behavior. There, they found mention of vocal play signals. While some vocalizations could be noisy, rhythmic patterns, others may be a quiet, low-pitched sound. Therefore, the sounds are unique to each species.
Now, they say further research could reveal much more, but observing animals laughing in the wild might be challenging. Since animals are quieter and only make the sounds occasionally, it won’t be easy to study and record their vocalizations.
Perhaps, it will take someone with the incredible patience of Jane Goodall?
Babies Can Tell Real from Fake Laughter
In 2019, Bryant and colleagues found that human babies in New York City could distinguish between real and fake laughter. Further, babies and adults worldwide know the difference between the laughter of friends and strangers.
First, researchers played recordings of laughter between pairs of either friends or strangers to 24 five-month-old infants. Then, they determined the babies listened longer when the laughs took place between real-life friends.
However, they didn’t discern exactly how the babies knew. It seems genuine; spontaneous laughter tends to be faster, breathier, and high-pitched.
“Exactly what components of laughter the infants are detecting remains to be seen, but prior work by Bryant’s team provides hints. Laughs between friends tend to include greater fluctuations in pitch and intensity, for example,” states Scientific American.
Although laughter may not be unique to humans, being fake about it might be. Nevertheless, fake laughter might not be fooling most people, or even infants.