Image: Chimp cartoon
Emory University
By copying the pattern of real chimps' yawning, researchers designed animations that in turn caused the real chimps to yawn.
updated 9/16/2009 11:03:47 AM ET 2009-09-16T15:03:47

In a bizarre twist on the odd phenomenon of contagious yawning, chimps have been found to yawn when they watch an animated chimp do so.

Scientists don't know for sure why yawning is contagious in humans, but the phenomenon is recognized as real. Researchers suspect it has to do with empathy and is therefore similar to our propensity to laugh (or cry) with others. Other primates are known to catch yawns, and last year a study revealed that dogs can catch a human yawn.

Humans, meanwhile, were known to catch yawns from animated characters.

“We know humans often empathize with fictional displays of behavior, including those in cartoons and video games, even though the displays are obviously artificial,” said lead researcher Matthew Campbell of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. “Humans experience emotional engagement with characters, empathizing with happiness, sadness or other emotions displayed by the characters.

But chimps?

To better understand why humans relate to artificial characters in this way, Campbell and colleagues decided to study chimps, among our closest relatives. They showed the animals 3D animations of chimpanzees yawning. The real chimpanzees yawned significantly more in response to the yawning animations than they did to the animations showing other controlled mouth movements, the researchers said.

“Because they showed only involuntary responses to the animations, we believe they empathized with the animations, while knowing they were artificial," Campbell said. "This is important for us to know because we can present animations in future experiments knowing the chimpanzees will identify with the animations as if they are other chimpanzees. This opens up the possibility of using animations in many other types of studies."

The findings were detailed last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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