Science

Yawning is contagious for lions, who synchronize their behaviors to help group cohesion

Some animals, including humans, will start yawning after someone else nearby yawns, and a new study suggests this ‘contagious yawning’ helps fuel group cohesion.

Researchers observing lions in South Africa found the animals do not just mimic each other’s yawns, they would copy subsequent behaviors.

If one lion yawned, then got up and moved somewhere else, another cat was almost sure to do the same. 

Scientists believe such synchronized behavior enables the pride to work as a team, finding food and spotting threats to the group. 

Lions can trigger each others’ yawns, just like humans. But while its believed ‘contagious yawning’ in humans is a sign of empathy, experts say for lions its a way to sync up behaviors and be a more cohesive pride 

Animals yawn for different reasons, according to researchers from the University of Pisa—sometimes it’s a transition state from awake to asleep, other times it’s a reaction to ‘high social tension.’

But a number of social animals — from wolves to birds to monkeys — have been observed engaging in ‘contagious yawning,’ in which one member of a group triggers another’s yawn.

‘Owing to their high social cohesion and synchronized group activity, wild lions are a good model to investigate both spontaneous yawning from the physiological domain and, possibly, contagious yawning, from the social communicative domain,’ the scientists wrote in a report published in the journal Animal Behavior.

Filming 19 lions in two groups in the Makalali Game Reserve in Gravelotte, South Africa, they found contagious yawning very common among the cats.

Analysis of 19 lions in South Africa's Makalali Game Reserve found that not only would a cat copy another pride member's yawn, they'd mimic subsequent behaviors, too

Analysis of 19 lions in South Africa’s Makalali Game Reserve found that not only would a cat copy another pride member’s yawn, they’d mimic subsequent behaviors, too

Over the five month period of filming, a lion was over 139 times more likely to yawn if another member of its pride just had done so within the past few minutes.

More notably, they found the lions would also mimic behaviors that followed the yawn. 

‘If one lion yawned, for example, another nearby lion was likely to yawn, as well,’ National Geographic reported. 

‘Then, if the first lion stood up and walked a short distance, the same lion that had mimicked the yawn would get up and walk a similar distance.’ 

Sometimes the lag between two lions’ actions was only a matter of seconds.

Researchers filming lions in South Africa found the cats were over 139 times more likely to yawn if another member of the pride had done so within the past few minutes

Researchers filming lions in South Africa found the cats were over 139 times more likely to yawn if another member of the pride had done so within the past few minutes

‘The data showed a clear picture: After yawning together, two lions would engage in highly synchronous behavior,’ senior author Elisabetta Palagi, an ethologist, told the magazine.

Scientists have linked contagious yawning in humans to a kind of empathy, but in the lions it may be more of a team-building exercise.

‘Lions share a lot of things, like highly organized hunts and caring for [cubs],’ Palagi told New Scientist. ‘So obviously they need to synchronize movement, and they need to communicate and anticipate the actions of their companions.’

This is the first study of its kind to show communal yawning can be a part of larger synchronized behavior.

The team did observe spontaneous yawning among the lions, especially when they were relaxed.

The yawns were equally dispersed in the day and night, the authors said, which supports the idea of ‘transition’ yawning, since lions sleep off and on over a 24-hour cycle.

There was spontaneous yawning among the lions, especially when they were relaxed. But the cats didn't yawn during periods of competition for food or other tension, suggesting they don't engage in 'arousal' yawning like humans.

There was spontaneous yawning among the lions, especially when they were relaxed. But the cats didn’t yawn during periods of competition for food or other tension, suggesting they don’t engage in ‘arousal’ yawning like humans.

Yawning increases oxygen intake and blood flow to the head, cooling the brain, which in turn makes you more alert if you’re sleepy.

The big cats didn’t yawn noticeably during periods of competition for food or other tension, suggesting they don’t engage in ‘arousal’ yawning like humans.

Earlier research has indicated the contagious yawn phenomenon can even cross species—dogs, chimpanzees and even African elephants have been observed ‘catching a yawn’ from humans they know well–even if that yawn was faked.


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