In bonobos yawn contagion is higher among kin and friends

PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49613. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049613. Epub 2012 Nov 14.


In humans, the distribution of yawn contagion is shaped by social closeness with strongly bonded pairs showing higher levels of contagion than weakly bonded pairs. This ethological finding led the authors to hypothesize that the phenomenon of yawn contagion may be the result of certain empathic abilities, although in their most basal form. Here, for the first time, we show the capacity of bonobos (Pan paniscus) to respond to yawns of conspecifics. Bonobos spontaneously yawned more frequently during resting/relaxing compared to social tension periods. The results show that yawn contagion was context independent suggesting that the probability of yawning after observing others' yawns is not affected by the propensity to engage in spontaneous yawns. As it occurs in humans, in bonobos the yawing response mostly occurred within the first minute after the perception of the stimulus. Finally, via a Linear Mixed Model we tested the effect of different variables (e.g., sex, rank, relationship quality) on yawn contagion, which increased when subjects were strongly bonded and when the triggering subject was a female. The importance of social bonding in shaping yawn contagion in bonobos, as it occurs in humans, is consistent with the hypothesis that empathy may play a role in the modulation of this phenomenon in both species. The higher frequency of yawn contagion in presence of a female as a triggering subject supports the hypothesis that adult females not only represent the relational and decisional nucleus of the bonobo society, but also that they play a key role in affecting the emotional states of others.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Friends
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pair Bond
  • Pan paniscus*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Yawning*

Grants and funding

The authors have no support or funding to report.