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Elephants Can 'Catch' Yawns From Their Favourite Humans

Mary-Jane Wiltsher

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Elephants Can 'Catch' Yawns From Their Favourite Humans

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock

It's mid-afternoon. You're flagging. Suddenly, you see a nearby co-worker or family member let out a big yawn - and right on cue, you're mirroring them with one of your own.

The exact cause of contagious yawning - the involuntarily response triggered when we see another person yawn - is unknown, but the phenomenon is thought to be connected with a sense of empathy.

And now, researchers at journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science have captured footage of elephants 'catching' yawns off their humans handlers, with the gentle giants yawning when their human handlers do.


Yawning isn't unique to us humans. Mammals yawn and so do many other animals, from birds to reptiles and some fish. But contagious yawning is far rarer.

Cross-species contagious yawning has been spotted in dogs and chimps - our closest primates.

Now elephants, known for being social and highly intelligent, can be added to the list.

Zoë Rossman from the University of New Mexico and her team spent two weeks observing the elephants at Knysna Elephant Park, a South African rescue facility for elephants.

Elephants are known to be intelligent and highly social (Credit: Pixabay)
Elephants are known to be intelligent and highly social (Credit: Pixabay)

Handlers staged their yawns and then watched for similar yawny behaviour in their elephant companions, with fascinating results.

Researchers noted that a closeness between elephant and handler meant that the animal was more likely to 'catch' its human's yawn.

Video footage shows elephant Keisha giving a contagious yawn after a series of handler yawns - and it might be the most adorable thing we've ever seen.

The handler pats her and tells her "Good girl, Keisha" in response. Aww!

In an interview with The Times, Zoë said: "The handlers at Knysna were hilariously accurate at faking yawns.


"They thought it sounded a bit ridiculous, until they saw the first yawn and then they went wild."

The study - which is the first report of cross-species yawning by elephants in response to humans - observed 10 African elephants over 13 consecutive nights.

Three elephants were spotted yawning in response to their human handlers, and nine instances of same-species (elephant to elephant) contagious yawning were observed.

It seems elephants were able to suss out bad acting too, as researchers noted the animals were more likely to 'catch' a yawn when it was genuine or 'realistic' as opposed to over-the-top 'stage gaping'.

Anyone else a little emotional - and yawny - after watching this footage?

Topics: News, Wildlife, elephants, Animals, Nature

Mary-Jane Wiltsher
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