Scientists have found that orangutans have a sense of empathy and mimicry which forms an essential part of laughter.
Researchers led by Dr Marina Davila Ross, a psychologist from the University of Portsmouth, filmed and studied the play behaviour of 25 orangutans aged between two and 12 at four primate centres around the world.
They recorded 432 bouts of play, during which the orangutans grappled, swung punches and occasionally tickled each other. When they caught an ape displaying an open gaping mouth, the equivalent of laughter, they checked the response of its playmate. Often, the second orangutan adopted the same expression less than a second later, suggesting the mimicry was an involuntary display of empathy. The ‘laughter’ was contagious.
Dr Davila Ross commented: “In humans, mimicking behaviour can be voluntary and involuntary. Until our discovery there had been no evidence that animals had similar responses. What is clear now is the building blocks of positive emotional contagion and empathy that refer to rapid involuntary facial mimicry in humans evolved prior to humankind.”
She added that the findings shed a new light on empathy and its importance for animals which live in groups such as orang-utans: “Empathy helps one communicate with social partners … It helps form social bonds and it’s supportive in terms of cooperation.”
- Ross M. D, Menzler S and Zimmermann E 2008 Rapid facial mimicry in orangutan play. Biology Letters, vol. 4 no. 1, 27-30