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Humor In Animals: The Species That Can Laugh

Updated October 7, 2019 36.7k views10 items

Anyone who has owned a pet understands that animals can have complex emotional lives. They feel sorrow, guilt, joy, and anger – and now scientists believe many animals even have a sense of humor. While researchers haven't really studied giggling animals in the past, new studies hope to answer the question of whether or not animals can laugh.

There are countless anecdotal stories of animals acting mischievously or appearing to double over with laughter, but is their data to back up these observations? There are many types of vocal responses that can be interpreted as animals laughing, though these phenomena are only observed in mammals and birds to date. The truth is, scientists don’t know much about the evolution of humor, but the little that is known suggests animals that laugh might be more common than anyone previously believed.

Time will tell whether laughter is the result of evolution or is an inherent part of all life, but the implications of animal giggles are potentially huge. Humans may not be the only creatures on earth that can appreciate a good chuckle.

  • Video: YouTube

    Like all apes, gorillas appear to be ticklish. They have been observed emitting laugh-like panting when engaging in play, but one gorilla in particular is of incredible note. Koko the gorilla has made headlines for her ability to communicate via sign language, although many skeptical scientists question how much she truly comprehends.

    Some anecdotes suggest Koko is able to crack jokes, often to the frustration of her handlers. An experiment designed to test her ability to mimic movements failed when Koko began intentionally screwing up the moves. When the researcher would touch his nose, Koko would find amusement in pointing to completely different body parts. Her handler allegedly got frustrated and signed "bad gorilla"; Koko's responded by signing "funny gorilla."

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  • Video: YouTube

    Canines are very playful animals, and they employ a variety of sounds to indicate that they're ready to have some fun. One of these sounds may even be a form of laughter.

    Scientists ran a study in which certain sounds were played for a dog, including barks, growls, and panting, and the dog's reactions were recorded. They discovered that dogs have their own version of laughter, a breathy exhale signifying the beginning of playtime. When the sound is played for a dog, it immediately attempts to instigate play with the source of the sound, whether the source is another dog or a human with a tape recorder. Just playing the sound can cause an immediate decrease in stress levels, a tactic that could potentially be used in high-stress environments like animal shelters.

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  • Video: YouTube

    All of the great apes apparently laugh when tickled, and orangutans are no exception. Orangutans are humans' most distant ape relatives, and their panting laughter is thought to be the most primitive. But orangutans are far from simple, as they apparently enjoy messing with humans.

    Some accounts out of Borneo describe orangutans locking people into cabins, a behavior that is accompanied by playful expressions and laughter. They have even been observed flinging feces and spitting at people, then playfully clapping afterwards. The larger the reaction from the human, the more likely it is that they would be targeted again. Interestingly, the orangutans never aimed for people they were afraid of, only the ones they were seemingly sure wouldn't retaliate.

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  • Video: YouTube

    It's no secret that corvids, a group of birds that includes crows, ravens, and magpies, are some of nature's smartest birds. Research has shown they can use tools and navigate complex social hierarchies, and there is some evidence that they have a sense of humor as well.

    Crows are mischievous, and they enjoy antagonizing others for no seemingly no other reason than their own personal enjoyment. One writer even discussed how a crow seemed to get a kick out of locking him in a large cage. It's hard to tell if this behavior is a sign of their twisted sense of humor, or if it's some evolutionary tick people don't fully understand. 

    Crows have been witnessed pulling the tails of other animals, including potentially dangerous predators like eagles and cats. Some scientists believe this is a tactic used to steal food, but others have noted how crows do this even when there is no food present. This leads many people to believe that crows might be nature's best practical jokers.