Apes endure same monkey business from infants as humans

Researchers found that juvenile orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas all engage in teasing behaviour
Researchers found that juvenile orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas all engage in teasing behaviour

Childish pranks such as poking a parent and running away or staring at a sibling until they snap were annoyances thought to be unique to human youngsters.

Now it has emerged apes are also subjected to the same indignities by their bumptious infants.

Researchers have found that juvenile orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas all engage in teasing behaviour, designed to get a rise out of their troop-mates.

It suggests that the origins of teasing dates back to our last common ancestor – at least 13 million years ago – and shows that joking is an important evolutionary adaptation that helps to keep groups bonded.

Primate experts filmed apes at San Diego Zoo and Leipzig Zoo and uncovered 18 distinct teasing behaviours by juvenile apes, most of which were attention seeking.

The primates study found it ‘it was common for teasers to pull on their target’s hair’
The primates study found it ‘it was common for teasers to pull on their target’s hair’

“It was common for teasers to repeatedly wave or swing a body part or object in the middle of the target’s field of vision, hit or poke them, stare closely at their face, disrupt their movements, pull on their hair or perform other behaviours that were extremely difficult for the target to ignore,” said Professor Erica Cartmill, senior author of the study from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

Juvenile apes were also spotted body slamming into their parents, hitting them with an object, mock-biting, tickling, hiding, stealing, swinging close by and violating their space by leaning in close to their face.

Some were seen to offer an object before pulling it away when the adult reached out to take it.

During the teasing the young apes were seen laughing, chest-beating, and somersaulting on the ground, suggesting they were enjoying the adult consternation.

Joking is an important part of human interaction that requires social intelligence, and the ability to anticipate the future actions of another individual. It also needs an appreciation of what is usually expected, so that the norm can be broken.

Babies begin teasing their parents from eight months of age, often by offering then withdrawing objects.

‘Playful teasing may have been present in our last common ancestor, at least 13 million years ago,’ said Dr Isabelle Laumer of UCLA
‘Playful teasing may have been present in our last common ancestor, at least 13 million years ago,’ said Dr Isabelle Laumer of UCLA

Although ape experts such as Jane Goodall have reported teasing in the wild, the new research is the first to systematically study the behaviour.

“From an evolutionary perspective, the presence of playful teasing in all four great apes and its similarities to playful teasing and joking in human infants suggests that playful teasing and its cognitive prerequisites may have been present in our last common ancestor, at least 13 million years ago,” said Dr Isabelle Laumer, of UCLA, the first author of the study.

“We hope that our study will inspire other researchers to study playful teasing in more species in order to better understand the evolution of this multifaceted behaviour.

“We also hope that this study raises awareness of the similarities we share with our closest relatives and the importance of protecting these endangered animals.”

The team found that teasing largely took place when the apes were relaxed, and involved one-sided provocation, with the teaser waiting for a response from their target.

“Similar to teasing in children, ape playful teasing involves one-sided provocation, response waiting in which the teaser looks towards the target’s face directly after a teasing action, repetition, and elements of surprise,” added Dr Laumer.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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