Teasing Isn't Just for Humans, Our Great Ape Cousins Seem to Enjoy It, Too

Teasing Isn't Just for Humans, Our Great Ape Cousins Seem to Enjoy It, Too

Playful teasing is a good way to connect with our loved ones, or just to give them a bit of a hard time. Infants are capable of this behavior, so it stands to reason that other animals that lack verbal skills could be capable of it, too. That idea led scientists to investigate whether our great ape cousins like to tease each other.

Multi-institute research recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B involved studying zoo-dwelling bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans for signs of teasing. The researchers say that based on past observations, there is evidence that these animals partake in this pastime, but there wasn’t a systemic study on the topic. To conduct their study, the team made a coding system to identify teasing and applied it to video footage of these great apes.

Isabelle Laumer, the study’s first author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Los Angeles and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, says, “Great apes are excellent candidates for playful teasing, as they are closely related to us, engage in social play, show laughter and display relatively sophisticated understandings of others’ expectations.”

By looking at teaser’s actions, facial expressions, and bodily movements, along with the target’s reaction, Laumer and her team were able to identify 18 different teasing behaviors, most of which seemed to be done to get a reaction. Some of the behaviors bordered on harassing, and they involved attention-getting, one-sided behaviors, repetition, and escalation.

Erica Cartmill, senior author and professor at UCLA and Indiana University, says, “It was common for teasers to repeatedly wave or swing a body part or object in the middle of the target’s field of vision, hit or poke them, stare closely at their face, disrupt their movements, pull on their hair or perform other behaviors that were extremely difficult for the target to ignore.”

These behaviors mostly occurred when the animals were relaxed. For the most part, the targets didn’t reciprocate, and there wasn’t much use of gestures or expressions typically found within great ape play. However, teasing involves complex cognitive abilities, which gives more insight into great apes’ brain power.

The team believes their findings show that the abilities needed for teasing were likely present in our common ancestors, before humans split off from other great apes. They hope their work helps people realize the importance of these animals.

Laumer explains. “We hope that our study will inspire other researchers to study playful teasing in more species in order to better understand the evolution of this multi-faceted behavior. We also hope that this study raises awareness of the similarities we share with our closest relatives and the importance of protecting these endangered animals.”

Michelle Milliken

Michelle has a journalism degree and has spent more than seven years working in broadcast news. She's also been known to write some silly stuff for humor websites. When she's not writing, she's probably getting lost in nature, with a fully-stocked backpack, of course.

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