Yawning Is Contagious in Wolves (Just Like Humans)

Yawning wolves
You yawn, I yawn: When the wolf lying down yawns (left), his fellow wolf yawns a few seconds later (right). (Image credit: Teresa Romero)

Just as with humans, when wolves see one of their fellow creatures yawn, they do it too, a new study suggests.

"In wolves, as well as in primates and dogs, yawning is contagiousbetween individuals, especially those that are close associates," study co-author Teresa Romero, a researcher from The University of Toyko in Japan, said in a statement.

This type of contagious behavior could be a sign that wolves have the capacity for empathy, the researchers said. [5 Ways Your Emotions Influence Your World (and Vice Versa)]

Yawning is thought to be a social cue that communicates information, often in a group setting. Previous studies of chimpanzees have shown that the act is thought to be an indication of empathy. Domestic dogs have also been known to yawn when they see humans yawn, at least in a scientific setting.

In the study, Romero and her colleagues observed yawning among a pack of 12 wolves at Tama Zoological Park in Toyko over a period of five months under relaxed conditions in which the animals showed no signs of stress.  They recorded the time of each yawn, the wolf that initiated the yawn and the identities and positions of nearby wolves.

The researchers found that yawns were contagious among wolves, and pack members who had strong bonds with the yawn instigator yawned more frequently. Also, female wolves reacted more quickly to a yawn than males did, suggesting the females may be more responsive to social stimuli, the researchers said.

The findings are based on a small study, but nevertheless, the researchers said the contagious yawning behavior suggests the wolves may have the capacity for empathy —  typically thought of as a human ability.

Interestingly in humans, children with autism, a disorder associated with social impairment and communication problems, don't experience contagious yawns.

The new findings were published today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.