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Wolves Vulnerable to Contagious Yawning

A photo of a wolf yawning.
Wolves in Bayerischer Wald National Park, Germany. Photograph by Norbert Rosing, National Geographic Creative

Yawning isn’t a lone wolf phenomenon. New research shows that when one wolf yawns, a packmate often does too.

Watching a pack of wolves at the Tama Zoological Park outside Tokyo last year, Japanese researchers found that the sight of a wolf yawning often triggered yawning in other wolves. And the more time the wolves spent together, the more likely it was to happen.

This is the first time this phenomenon has been observed in wolves, the researchers say.

For centuries, scientists have been puzzling over why we yawn. We tend to yawn more when we’re tired than when we’re not, but people and animals yawn at plenty of other times too. (How many of you have yawned so far just reading this article?) Some studies have found that yawning cools the brain, since the intake of outside air lowers internal temperature. Others say that yawning helps keep us alert, which may explain why some people yawn right before doing something stressful, like jumping out of a plane.

Still, these theories don’t totally explain one of the more fascinating aspects of yawning: When we see someone else yawn, our chances of yawning go way up. The leading hypothesis among scientists, Romero says, is that this contagious yawning is related to empathy—meaning an empathetic person or animal will feel tired when he or she observes another individual looking tired. (See “‘Contagious’ Yawning Occurs More Among Loved Ones.”)

Until now, contagious yawning was thought to be something only humans and other primates like chimpanzees do. Scientists who had looked for evidence of yawn contagion among domestic dogs had gotten mixed results—some studies seemed to show that one dog yawning triggered another dog to yawn, whereas other studies didn’t find any association.

University of Tokyo biologist Teresa Romero was especially interested in how dogs and wolves thought differently, so she figured that investigating contagious yawning among wolves might help provide a better understanding of the two species’ differences.

Romero wanted the latest study to be in as realistic a setting as possible, so she and her colleagues spent 524 hours over five months observing a pack of 12 wolves at the Tama Zoological Park, which is known for its naturalistic enclosures. They noted every time a wolf yawned spontaneously, then recorded the responses of any wolves nearby that had seen the yawn. The researchers also measured how frequently the wolves yawned without seeing their packmates also doing so.

The researchers found that the wolves were significantly more likely to yawn after seeing another wolf do so than at other times. In 50 percent of their observations, a wolf yawned after seeing another do so; wolves yawned only 12 percent of the time when they didn’t see another wolf do so.

Yawns were also more likely to be contagious among wolves with close social bonds, the researchers report Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

Canine behavior expert Monique Udell of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who was not involved with the study, says some “previous studies concluded that contagious yawning was unique to dogs due to their domestication. This new study shows that might not be the case.”

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  1. Lindsay
    Edmonton, AB
    September 23, 2014, 11:10 am

    So wolves may use yawning as a way to communicate with eachother that they mean no harm, or to diffuse a potential conflict with one another. So when one wolf yawns, the other does the same, and everyone relaxes.

  2. Lindsay
    Edmonton, AB
    September 23, 2014, 11:07 am

    Don’t know if they relate back to this at all but Turid Rugaas has done some studies on “calming signals” in dogs, heres what she says about yawning

    “Yawning-The dog may yawn when someone bends over him, when you sound angry, when there´s yelling and quarreling in the family, when the dog is at the vet´s office, when someone is walking directly at the dog, when the dog is excited with happiness and anticipation – for instance by the door when you are about to go for a walk, when you ask the dog to do something he doesn´t feel like doing, when your training sessions are too long and the dog gets tired, when you have said NO for doing something you disapprove of, and in many other situations.

    Threatening signals (to walk straight at, reach for the dog, bending over the dog, staring into the dog´s eyes, fast movements, and so on) will always cause the dog to use a calming signal. There are about 30 different calming signals, so even when many dogs will yawn, other dogs may use another calming signal.

    All dog knows all the signals. When one dog yawns and turn his head to the side, the dog he is ´talking to´ may lick his nose and turn his back – or do something completely different”

    //quote http://en.turid-rugaas.no/calming-signals—the-art-of-survival.html

  3. onaneye ridwan
    September 1, 2014, 3:38 pm

    Interesting story it seems yawning is a preamble of tiredness

  4. MC
    Warszawa, Poland
    September 1, 2014, 8:33 am

    I’ve heard that yawning is a tool to synchronize a nap time among mammals. Meaning that if one animal yawns other will soon follow and the whole group will take some rest collectively.

  5. Don
    August 31, 2014, 9:54 pm

    Humans and animals (especially pack animals) that live
    together tend to group yawn when the rest or sleep time is approaching, Ask any farmer.

    Other Birds and animals that live in groups have interactions
    that calms the group down for rest and sleeping.

  6. jorgen
    August 30, 2014, 9:30 pm

    I started yawning by reading this post, not cause im not intrested but just by reading and maybe seeing the wolf do so.. However its 3:30 here now.. But im almost sure i didnt yawn before reading.

  7. rekanmergasory
    kudistan, erbil
    August 30, 2014, 7:11 pm

    national geographic good page.

  8. Rik Bakker
    August 30, 2014, 1:17 pm

    I have to Yawn now..

    I am the Whistler for Wolves..
    Greetings from the Netherlands..

  9. Nazeer Nadurath
    August 28, 2014, 4:15 pm

    Yawning could be a sign that you’re out of air or you need some fresh air in a metaphor it could mean anything, I think the wolves are just getting frustrated. Yes I do find yawning contagious, and I am frustrated with what to do today. So it’s probably meant to find something to do or accomplish something for some thing ahead.

  10. cj
    Hogwarts, Hogsmeade?
    August 28, 2014, 3:00 pm

    Animals are alive (duh). I’m not surprised that they also act like us. We, after all, are also alive.

  11. Delia
    August 27, 2014, 9:35 pm

    Wolves, elephants, horses, dogs and another animals are so similar to us.