By Dr. Becker
Virtually all mammals yawn, but only humans, chimpanzees, dogs and one type of rat are known to experience contagious yawning. Yawning in response to someone else’s yawn is thought to show a capacity for empathy.1
For instance, among chimpanzees contagious yawning was thought to provide evidence that the “apes may possess advanced self-awareness and empathic abilities.”2 Further, according to research published in the journal Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience:3
"... [C]ontagious yawning is a primitive expression of social cognition, namely empathy.
Susceptibility to contagious yawning is correlated with the speed in recognizing one's own face, theory of mind processing, and is also associated with activation in regions of the brain that have been associated with social cognitive processes.
This suggests that contagious yawning may be an evolutionarily old process that begot a higher level of social cognition in certain species."
Imagine researchers’ surprise, then, when they discovered the presence of contagious yawning not in a mammal but in a social parrot, the budgerigar (budgies, also known as parakeets).
New Evidence Shows Budgies Experience Contagious Yawning
For the recent study, researchers from the State University of New York (SUNY) Oneonta designed two experiments to investigate the presence of contagious yawning in budgies. For the first study, the birds were kept in adjacent cages with and without visual barriers.
The birds yawned three times more often in a five-minute period when they could see each other than when they could not. In the second experiment, the budgies were shown video of another budgie yawning. The birds yawned twice as often when shown the video clips. According to the researchers:4
“Results from both studies demonstrate that yawning is contagious. To date, this is the first experimental evidence of contagious yawning in a non-mammalian species.
We propose that future research could use budgerigars to explore questions related to basic forms of empathic processing.”
Empathy Is for the Birds Too
If birds experience contagious yawning, the implication is that they, too, experience empathy (once thought to be a primarily human trait). Perhaps this isn’t even that surprising.
For instance, it’s known that birds flying in a V-formation (in which the leading bird expends the most energy) frequently change position within the flock. This provides evidence for “turn taking reciprocal cooperative behavior in birds.”5
Certain birds, including crows and jays, also react and hold gatherings when a bird in their group dies. Western scrub jays, for example, seem to hold “funerals” for their dead in which they congregate in the area of the body and make loud, screeching calls for up to 30 minutes.6
Other research has shown that flock members experience an increase in heart rate when a member of their group experiences a conflict, which suggests they, too, experience the distress.7
Rooks also engage in a specific behavior, bill twining, with a social partner following a conflict, which suggests the birds may be consoling one another.8 Ravens have also shown evidence of empathy. Writing in the journal PLOS One, researchers concluded:
“Our findings suggest that in ravens, bystanders may console victims with whom they share a valuable relationship, thus alleviating the victims' post-conflict distress. Conversely victims may affiliate with bystanders after a conflict in order to reduce the likelihood of renewed aggression.
These results stress the importance of relationship quality in determining the occurrence and function of post-conflict interactions, and show that ravens may be sensitive to the emotions of others.”
Contagious Yawning in Other Species: What Does It Mean?
Contagious yawning has been used to test empathy in chimpanzees.
One study showed the chimpanzees displayed contagious yawning in the presence of familiar chimpanzees and both familiar and unfamiliar humans (probably because they were raised at a primate research center and were therefore used to humans). 9
Pet dogs also exhibit contagious yawning in the presence of humans, and exhibit the phenomenon more so in the presence of humans with whom they are bonded. In dogs, contagious yawning has been found to be an empathetic response, not a stress response.10
As research into contagious yawning grows, it seems the capacity for empathy may exist in a number of species. A 2014 study published in PLOS One found, for instance, that wolves are also capable of yawn contagion and the frequency increases depending on the level of emotional proximity.11
Interestingly, female wolves yawned faster in response to the yawns of their close associates, which suggests the females may be more responsive to their social stimuli. Further, according to the researchers:12
“On the basis of observational and experimental evidence, several authors have proposed that contagious yawn is linked to our capacity for empathy, thus presenting a powerful tool to explore the root of empathy in animal evolution …
These results are consistent with the claim that the mechanism underlying contagious yawning relates to the capacity for empathy and suggests that basic building blocks of empathy might be present in a wide range of species.”