Four Ape Species Found to Engage in Playful Teasing

Playful teasing is a fundamental aspect of human social interaction, often seen as a marker of sociability and intelligence. It involves complex cognitive skills such as social intelligence, anticipation of future actions, and recognition of others’ expectations. Playful teasing may also be a precursor to humor, which is usually considered a uniquely human trait. However, recent research challenges this notion by showing that great apes, our closest living relatives, also engage in playful teasing behaviors.

What is playful teasing and how do great apes do it?

Playful teasing is a form of social play that involves mildly harassing or provoking another individual in a way that is not intended to cause harm or offense. Playful teasing can be seen as a form of joking, as it often involves violating or manipulating others’ expectations in a surprising or amusing way. Playful teasing can also serve various social functions, such as strengthening bonds, expressing emotions, and communicating intentions.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B , scientists from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPI-AB), Indiana University (IU), and the University of California San Diego (UCSD) reported evidence of playful teasing in four great ape species: orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. The researchers observed spontaneous social interactions that appeared to be playful, mildly harassing, or provocative among the apes in various zoos. They developed a behavioral coding system to identify playful teasing events, focusing on interactions devoid of aggression and characterized by playfulness and provocation.

The researchers found that all four great ape species intentionally engaged in provocative behavior, resulting in 18 distinct behaviors aimed at capturing a partner’s attention. Teasers commonly used repetitive actions, such as waving body parts or objects, poking, staring closely, disrupting movements, and pulling hair, making it difficult for targets to ignore. The targets often responded with laughter-like vocalizations or playful retaliation. The researchers also noted that the teasers displayed signs of enjoyment and anticipation, such as smiling and looking at the target before or during the teasing.

Some examples of playful teasing behaviors observed in the study are:

  • An orangutan teased a human visitor by repeatedly waving a piece of cloth in front of her face and then hiding it behind his back.
  • A chimpanzee teased another chimpanzee by holding a stick near his mouth and then quickly moving it away when the other tried to grab it.
  • A bonobo teased another bonobo by tickling her under the arm and then running away.
  • A gorilla teased another gorilla by stealing his food and then throwing it back at him.

What does teasing reveal about great apes’ cognitive skills?

The study suggests that playful teasing in great apes has much in common with joking behavior in humans. Both are provocative, persistent, and include elements of surprise and play. Both also require cognitive skills such as understanding others’ expectations, intentions, and emotions; manipulating others’ attention; and coordinating actions with others.

The researchers argue that playful teasing is an indicator of advanced social cognition in great apes. Playful teasing requires the ability to infer what others expect or want and then deliberately violate or manipulate those expectations in a playful way. Playful teasing also requires the ability to monitor others’ reactions and adjust one’s own behavior accordingly. Playful teasing also requires the ability to distinguish between playful and serious contexts and signals.

The study also implies that the prerequisites for humor evolved in the human lineage at least 13 million years ago, when humans and great apes shared a common ancestor. This suggests that humor is not a uniquely human trait, but rather a shared evolutionary heritage that reflects our close kinship with great apes.

Why is playful teasing important for great apes’ social lives?

Playful teasing is not only a source of amusement for great apes, but also a way of strengthening social bonds, expressing emotions, and communicating intentions. By studying playful teasing in great apes, we can gain insights into the evolutionary origins of our own sense of humor and its role in our social lives.

Playful teasing can enhance social relationships by creating positive emotions, reducing tension, and increasing trust and intimacy. Playful teasing can also express emotions such as affection, curiosity, excitement, or frustration. Playful teasing can also communicate intentions such as inviting play, testing boundaries, or challenging dominance.

Playful teasing can also facilitate social learning by exposing individuals to novel situations, objects, or behaviors. Playful teasing can also promote social coordination by requiring individuals to synchronize their actions and signals with others. Playful teasing can also foster social creativity by encouraging individuals to explore new ways of interacting with others.

Playful teasing is a complex and fascinating behavior that reveals the remarkable cognitive and social skills of great apes. By comparing playful teasing in great apes and humans, we can better understand the evolutionary roots of our own sense of humor and how it shapes our social interactions.

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