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David Bolton  /  Morguefile.com
Scientists suspect that the panting behavior exhibited by dogs during "play chasing" is an analog for human laughter.
By Senior writer
updated 3/31/2005 5:01:12 PM ET 2005-03-31T22:01:12

Life can be funny, and not just for humans.

Studies by various groups suggest monkeys, dogs and even rats love a good laugh. People, meanwhile, have been laughing since before they could talk.

"Indeed, neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along with our 'ha-ha-has' and verbal repartee," says Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University.

When chimps play and chase each other, they pant in a manner that is strikingly like human laughter, Panksepp writes in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Dogs have a similar response.

Rats chirp while they play, again in a way that resembles our giggles. Panksepp found in a previous study that when rats are playfully tickled, they chirp and bond socially with their human tickler. And they seem to like it, seeking to be tickled more. Apparently joyful rats also preferred to hang out with other chirpers.

The first laugh
Laughter in humans starts young, another clue that it's a deep-seated brain function.

"Young children, whose semantic sense of humor is marginal, laugh and shriek abundantly in the midst of their other rough-and-tumble activities," Panksepp notes.

Importantly, various recent studies on the topic suggest that laughter in animals typically involves similar play chasing. It could be that verbal jokes tickle ancient, playful circuits in our brains.

More study is needed to figure out whether animals are really laughing. The results could explain why humans like to joke around. And Panksepp speculates it might even lead to the development of treatments for laughter's dark side: depression.

Meanwhile, there's the question of what's so darn funny in the animal world.

"Although no one has investigated the possibility of rat humor, if it exists, it is likely to be heavily laced with slapstick," Panksepp figures. "Even if adult rodents have no well-developed cognitive sense of humor, young rats have a marvelous sense of fun."

Science has traditionally deemed animals incapable of joy and woe.

Panksepp's response: "Although some still regard laughter as a uniquely human trait, honed in the Pleistocene, the joke’s on them."

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Photos: Animal Tracks: Aug. 4  - Aug. 11

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  1. Chimp off the old block

    Shiba, a chimpanzee at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, holds her newborn baby on Aug. 10. (Lisa Ridley / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Cow caress

    Emma Leis lays on a cow at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. When pigs flee

    Pigs race at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dog takes catnap

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  5. Busy bee

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  6. Bright butterfly

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  7. Seeing double

    A gorilla is reflected in a window at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Sven Hoppe / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Blooming plumage

    A peacock displays his plumage at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Sven Hoppe / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rock on

    A 9-month-old baby samang, a tailless, black-furred gibbon native to forests in Malaysia and Indonesia's Sumatra province, holds onto a rock during a Hindu ritual ceremony in Bali, Indonesia, on Aug. 9. (Firdia Lisnawati / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sitting pretty

    Parrots look around at the ZOOM zoo in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Patrik Stollarz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Meerly looking

    A meerkat stands and watches visitors at the ZOOM zoo in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Patrik Stollarz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. At the end of their rope

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  13. The eyes have it

    A snow owl at the ZOOM Zoo in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Patrik Stollarz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. On the prowl with a growl

    A tiger walks around at the ZOOM zoo in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Patrik Stollarz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Big bad wolf

    Chingiz, a male Siberian forest wolf, walks around inside an open-air cage at the Royev Ruchey Zoo in Russia on Aug. 8. (Ilya Naymushin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Washing up

    Masha, a female raccoon, holds a piece of cloth in a pan with water, placed by zoo employees, at the Royev Ruchey Zoo in Russia on Aug. 8. (Ilya Naymushin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Teeny turtle

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  18. Lengthy lick

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  19. National bird

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  20. Silly seal

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  21. Leaving the hospital

    Crowds of beach goers watch Mitchell, a 65-pound juvenile loggerhead sea turtle, crawl back to the ocean during the release of rehabilitated sea turtles on Aug. 6 in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. The turtle which accidentally swallowed a fishing hook and had it surgically removed by the sea turtle hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston. (Richard Ellis / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pampered pachyderms

    An elephant keeper sprinkles coconut oil on orphaned elephants at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage within Nairobi National Park in Kenya on Aug. 6. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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