Cheeky native New Zealand parrot the kea's laugh is infectious - scientists

Rodiano Bonacci
Marzo 21, 2017

Examples of play included chase games on the ground and in flight, mock fights and tussles, foot-kicking and repeatedly tossing the same object in the air.

"Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already underway, but instead started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics", the researchers point out. What's new is that a special warbling call they make has been shown to trigger behaviour that seems to be an equivalent of spontaneous, contagious laughter in humans. After analysing the kea's full vocal repertoire, Schwing and colleagues noticed the play call was linked to playful behaviour.

Doing so revealed that some birds began to spontaneously play upon hearing the play call.

To carry out their investigation, the scientists recorded the sound and played it back to wild birds at Arthur's Pass National Park, on New Zealand's South Island.

So they isolated the call, played it to groups of wild kea and found it spurred birds to play more and play longer in comparison to other sounds.

To compare the birds' different reactions to the calls, they also played other stimuli - two non-play kea calls, a call of the South Island robin and a standardised tone.

"The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state".

"In anthropomorphic terms, kea play calls act as a form of infectious laughter".

It means that humans and their closest relatives might not be the only species capable of emotional contagion spread by sound. Other studies found that chimps and rats may find laughter contagious. The scientists highlight that social play behaviour is rare in mature animals of opposite sex, so they are keen to understand why it happens in parrots.

In a study now published in the journal Current Biology, scientists have shown for the first time "emotionally contagious" vocalisation are not unique to mammals.

A playful parrot has an infectious laugh that influences the behaviour of its feathered friends, scientists have discovered. "It is a genuinely exciting demonstration of behavioural and, arguably, emotional contagion".

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