Humans Aren’t the Only Animals Who Laugh When Tickled

What is laughter? It seems obvious until you try to answer, and then other questions arise: What is its function — and are humans the only ones to exhibit this behavior?

It’s especially interesting to examine the science behind laughter. There are two main categories, for starters: a response to physical stimuli — such as tickling — and social laughter.

Humans start laughing as babies, and even those who are born blind and deaf can laugh– a tremendous clue that laughing is a deep-seated brain function.

Scientists have been trying to understand laughter for a very long time, and they’ve discovered some interesting things along the way.

The idea that animals other than humans laugh can be traced back at least to 1872 in Charles Darwin’s work, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” According to research at Germany’s University of Hannover, “primates have spent the past 10-16 million years evolving this ability.”

In a 2009 study, researchers explored laughter by tickling young orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, as well as human babies. They found that human laughter characteristics — that which makes human laughter discernible from other sounds — can be traced to our shared ancestors with great apes.

Delightfully, there is a common evolutionary origin for tickle-induced laughter in humans and great apes. So laughter is, scientifically speaking, something that we share with multiple species.

“[N]eural 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,” explains Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist from Washington State.

In Panskepp’s landmark 2000 study, he discovered thats rats laugh when tickled. They emit high-pitched chirps and will follow — and even chase — the hand that is tickling them. Naturally, the sound they make is very distinct from human laughter. In fact, the laughing chirp is out of human hearing range, and it’s the same noise that rats make when they play with each other.

There’s still a long way to go before scientists are ready to classify other animals as being able to laugh — though their capacity for joy and a wide range of emotions has become an increasingly accepted concept.

As for other animals beside our great ape friends, many species have been found to make a different, panting sound that functions very much like laughter. Based on what we currently know, these animals — including dogs and dolphins – use it to signal that they’re having fun during play.

We still have a long way to go before understanding what other animals might also make these happy panting sounds while playing or being tickled, or if there are different ways that they express their happiness.

Photo credit: su-lin via flickr

146 comments

Melania P
Melania P14 hours ago

We, humans, share a lot of common traits with other animals; why be surprised of laughter and tickling? Humans are so overrated..... They are the cruelest animals on the planet, the most selfish.

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Jennifer H
Jennifer H24 days ago

Christine K - So wrong. Please read Nicole H comment. Only - it is sad to realize that humans are the most degraded of all the animals.

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silja salonen
silja salonen26 days ago

we all .. all of the earth creatures enjoy touch and love.

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bob Petermann
bob Petermann1 months ago

Thanks

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Carl R
Carl R1 months ago

Thank you Care2!!!!!

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heather g
heather g1 months ago

They all need to be protected for posterity

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Nicole H
Nicole H1 months ago

In my opinion tickling does not match with laughing. We laugh when we read or see or hear something funny. Or because you are in a happy mood. Regretfully, we do not laugh as much as before. And certainly not as much as many people, who do not live in a modern society with all the stress, jealousy, and hatred around us. If we do not have a bigger car than our colleague, or if we have only 1 holiday trip a year, to an adjacent country, instead of going to the end of the world at least 2 or 3 times a year, we feel unhappy and forgot how to laugh with very simple things. The only thing we should do more regularly is looking to young children playing together.... they have a lot of fun and laughter or to playing animals, like dogs, cats, horses, etc.. On the contrary, laughing when being tickled I think is just a reaction of certain nerves as we do not laugh when being tickled on our arm, on our head, etc.. In general we only laugh when being tickled on the feet, bellies, and few other places on our bodies. And when tickling is continued for too long time, it makes us even aggressive. But to fully understand how this mechanism works, further studies will have to follow. There is one thing I am quite sure of : a good, sound laughter and you are less nervous, you have less stress, and you feel a lot better...

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Nicole H
Nicole H1 months ago

Christine K. : We are ANIMALS. Always have been, and always will be. And we are mammals, viz. (normally) breast feeding our babies with milk. Our cousins and nieces are first of all the Orang Utan, with whom we share the greatest number of genes, followed by other primates like the chimps, the bonobos, the gorillas, etc... I do not understand why you apparently hate it to be called an animal. There is nothing wrong with them. On the contrary !! They have not lost their "attitudes" like we have. First, because we learned to make and control fire, so that our ancestors could eat more than only some grass, leaves, etc.. But the non-human animals do not kill their own species for quite some idiotic ideas like religion, or a plot of land, etc.. Animals only kill to be able to have their own babies of their own species like the lions, because when a mom lion does not have to care for and feed her babies, she will be mating again.. and others kill for feeding themselves, these are the predators. Even for a plot of land they need for their families, they do fight, but not till death, unless the injuries are too massive. But in general, when 2 males fight for a lady, or a herd, they stop the fight once they realize who is the strongest. To my knowledge, there is no animal on the whole planet that kills their neighbor just for fun or for wealth.

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Marija M
Marija M1 months ago

tks

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Suzanne L
Suzanne L1 months ago

ty

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