Research: Great Apes Have a Sense of Humor Like Humans

  • Nosy, pranking or teasing behavior is a common action carried out by great ape species; orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. This funny thing is similar to what humans do.
  • Recent research by Laumer et al. [2024] stated that this basic form of great ape humor likely evolved within the hominoid lineage, at least 13 million years ago.
  • There are 18 different nosy or teasing behaviors that great apes engage in in casual contexts. Many of these behaviors appear to be used to elicit a response, or at least to attract the target's attention.
  • This research could be an inspiration to study cute teasing behavior in more species, while raising awareness of the similarities we have with our closest relatives, as well as the importance of protecting these endangered animals.

Have you ever done anything fun or nosy? Poking a friend on the back only to see it turn the wrong way, then doing it again after a while, or teasing others by offering objects? We think that this cute thing is a natural human characteristic, but that is not entirely true.

The latest research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B , found evidence that the seductive behavior that humans can carry out is similar to that carried out by four species of great apes, namely orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.

A number of researchers [Laumer et al., 2024] state that this basic form of humor likely evolved in the hominoid lineage, at least 13 million years ago.

“From an evolutionary perspective, the presence of banter in all four great apes and its similarity to banter in human babies suggests that the condition and its cognitive prerequisites may have existed in our last common ancestor, at least 13 million years ago,” said postgraduate student Isabelle Laumer. -doctoral fellow, researcher and lead author of the study, from the University of California Los Angeles [UCLA], Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior [MPI-AB],

To uncover this behavior, the researchers analyzed a collection of videos of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. The videos, collected by FR and colleagues from 2016 to 2019, included four juveniles, aged three to five years, one from each species group.

“We analyzed 75 hours of video [split evenly between species; average 18.8 ± 1.7 hours] and extract clips containing spontaneous social interactions that appear humorous or provocative," quoted from Laumer et al., [2024].

During these interactions, researchers observe everything from actions, body movements, facial expressions, and how the teased target responds in turn. Apart from that, they also try to test the intention behind a teasing act.

Whether this action has a specific [individual] target, if the target is ignored, the teaser will continue with the action, or actually increase as time goes by, or vice versa the teaser waits for a reaction from the target.

As a result, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas engage in deliberately provocative behavior, often accompanied by features of play. There are 18 different flirting behaviors. Many of these behaviors appear to be used to elicit a response, or at least to attract the target's attention.

Across species, the most common teasing behaviors were poking [21%], hitting [15%], blocking conspecific movements [11%], body slamming [9%; either hitting gently or strongly with the whole body] and pulling on similar body parts [8%]. These five flirting behaviors account for 64 percent of all flirting behaviors.

“It is common for teasers to repeatedly wave or swing body parts or objects in the center of the target's field of view, hit or poke him, stare closely at his face, interrupt his movements, pull his hair or engage in other behavior that is very difficult for the target to ignore,” said UCLA and Indiana University [IU] professor Erica Cartmill is also the senior author of the study.

While this nosy behavior takes many forms, Cartmil says it differs from regular play in several ways. This is proven by the absence of a response to the teaser.

“Playful teasing in great apes is one-sided, often coming from the tease throughout the interaction and is rarely reciprocated. "These animals also rarely use play signals such as the primate 'play face', which is similar to what we call a smile, or the 'hold' gesture that signals their intention to play," he continued.


The majority of these flirting, or caper [attention-seeking] behaviors, were seen in at least three species: chimpanzees [17 of 18 flirting behaviors], orangutans [14 of 18] and bonobos [11 of 18]. Meanwhile, gorillas only use 8 of 18 seductive behaviors.

This event of teasing each other, or teasing each other, usually involves adults and teenagers. Regarding who initiates it, the researchers say both adults and teenagers can initiate flirting. Interestingly, although the mother figure is a social partner for the juvenile apes, the mother is not a common target of teasing.

“Juvenile orangutan 'Aisha' and juvenile bonobo 'Belle' never tease their mothers. Juvenile chimpanzee 'Azibo' only teased his mother 14% of the time and juvenile 'Ohini' only teased his mother 8% of the time. An exception was the juvenile gorilla 'Denny', who often directed his teasing behavior towards his mother or father [71% and 14% respectively]; however this is the smallest group, with only four people," quoted from research by Laumer et al. [2024].

In addition, the researchers' conclusions state that this nosy, or teasing, behavior mostly occurs in casual contexts and has similarities to human behavior.

"Similar to teasing in children, playful monkey teasing involves unilateral provocation, waiting for a response when the tease looks at the target's face directly after the teasing action, repetition, and an element of surprise,"

The researchers noted that Jane Goodall and other field primatologists had mentioned similar behavior occurring in chimpanzees several years ago, but this new study is the first to systematically study cute teasing behavior.

“We hope our research will inspire other researchers to study teasing behavior in more species to better understand the evolution of this multi-faceted behavior. "We also hope this research raises awareness of the similarities we have with our closest relatives and the importance of protecting these endangered animals," Laumer said.

For your information, orangutans are a type of great ape in Asia that is threatened with extinction. Meanwhile his relatives; gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos live in Africa.

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