Photo Credit: jpmatth via Compfight cc
Who hasn’t felt something stir in the deepening well of the soul when a threatened animal species, such as the noble orang-utan, is seen escaping habitat destruction in a documentary or advertisement attempting to raise awareness of its plight? Or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to experience that same inner echo, like the sound of a single stone splash and reverberate in that self-same well, when encountering the probing, stoic gaze of a mountain gorilla through a forest clearing?
Our fascination with animals extends far beyond the perks that come from their domestication, from having tamed and possessed them like everything else. Their behaviours are reminders of aspects of our own crypto-animal brains, and observing the same impulses and instincts in everything from a dachshund to a cockatoo is a rewarding morsel of self-knowledge. In this view, the perennial cat vs dog debate that is such a staple of our dinner party conversations is in effect more of a polemic about the competition for supremacy between our own vices and virtues.

Some exciting new research on animal behaviour that has recently met the light of day may provide another portal for our self-understanding by teaching us a thing or two about the best medicine known to man-kind. No, it’s not Prozac or lithium, but laughter! As the maestro of silent cinema Charlie Chaplin said, a day without laughter is a day wasted, so hopes are high that this new research may just help us emu-late his wisdom.

It’s a weird duo, but turns out the only two animals currently known to be capable of a snigger and giggle are apes and, who would’ve thought, rats. Maybe the latter are buoyed by their knowledge that, if they can thrive in abject squalor, just imagine how it would be when the good times eventually roll over!  

Western lowland Gorillas have been known to chuckle at clumsy stumbles by researchers that were in the vicinity originally measuring the animal’s incredible ability to employ sign language. Researchers were further astonished when it was noted that a unique “hoho” laugh, eerily reminiscent of Santa Claus’ merry season hoot, was directed at individuals the ape was especially fond of.

This led to the resolution that further systemic research was required to investigate the phenomenon. Enter Marina Davila Ross, a psychologist, from Portsmouth in the U.K. Ever interested in the evolutionary origins of laughter, Ross attempted to induce laughter in infant and juvenile apes, including orang-utans, gorillas and chimpanzees. Harkening back to her own experience of juvenilia, she employed the time-honoured device of tickling! (For those interested in other curious methods of inducing positive affect, simply place a pen or pencil across your mouth. It’s legit.)

Ross was delighted when the apes responded with “tickle-induced vocalisations”. Us commoners simply call it laughter. Ross has used the data on vocalisation to further support the proposition that laughter was inherited from the last common ancestor of both humans and great apes, a hominid that lurched around the scene some 10 to 16 million years ago. That’s a lot of gags.

Her study has more originally pointed to the Chimpanzee’s recurrent use of “laugh faces”, where teeth are bared to the world and smiles made, without necessarily being joined with laughter. Chimpanzee’s are thus capable of communicating a more diverse and explicit range of emotions than previously thought.

It’s a sobering and heartening thought to remind one’s self that 16 million years of evolution has tried and tested one of our best adaptations and tools for making it through the grind of life. Bear this in mind next time you’re subject to a “tickle-induced vocalisation”.