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Yawns Are Contagious In Budgies

231 Yawns Are Contagious In Budgies
JENG_NIAMWHAN/shutterstock

Just thinking about yawning has made my jaw start to droop. Practically all vertebrates yawn, but so far only a handful have been shown to yawn contagiously, and all of them are mammals. Not anymore. For the first time, researchers have shown that budgies also “catch” yawns from other birds.

Previously, contagious yawning was only thought to occur between humans, domestic dogs, chimpanzees, and the adorably named high-yawning Sprague-Dawley rat. “To date, this is the first experimental evidence of contagious yawning in a non-mammalian species,” said Andrew Gallup, who led the study published in Animal Cognition. Generally thought to be a primitive way of showing empathy, it could be used to explore whether birds display other empathetic processes.

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GIF composed from video uploaded by YouTube user Sou mya

To investigate the behavior in budgies (Melopsittacus undulatus), Gallup and his group, from State University of New York, set up a series of experiments in the lab. In the first, budgies were placed in adjacent cages either in view of each other, or with a barrier between them. In a second experiment, the birds were shown videos of a budgie yawning, or not yawning.

They found that yawning happened three times as often within a five-minute window when they could see each other, compared to when they had a barrier between the cages. When shown a video of a yawning bird, the budgies were found to yawn twice as often. Whilst in laboratory settings budgies have been shown to automatically imitate videos, the researchers believe that their results are more than just an involuntary action, and suggest that it’s a form of showing empathy.

Contagious yawning does seem to be linked to empathetic processes, and may be beneficial to highly social animals. In the wild, budgerigars form huge flocks in the Australian outback, and so being able to empathize with other members of the group might therefore be advantageous. “Contagious yawning by itself is not exactly empathy, but it hints at the tendency to mimic and synchronise with the bodies of others,” Frans de Waal of Emory University told New Scientist. “This process is probably the basis of mammalian empathy.”

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Gallup hopes that since yawning can be experimentally manipulated in the lab, budgies might serve as a good model with which to explore other empathetic processes in our feathered friends. And now... yawn


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