Chimpanzees show a developmental increase in susceptibility to contagious yawning: a test of the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on yawn contagion.
Contagious yawning has been reported for humans, dogs and several non-human primate species, and associated with empathy in humans and other primates. Still, the function, development and underlying mechanisms of contagious yawning remain unclear. Humans and dogs show a developmental increase in susceptibility to yawn contagion, with children showing an increase around the age of four, when also empathy-related behaviours and accurate identification of others' emotions begin to clearly evince. Explicit tests of yawn contagion in non-human apes have only involved adult individuals and examined the existence of conspecific yawn contagion. Here we report the first study of heterospecific contagious yawning in primates, and the ontogeny of susceptibility thereto in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus. We examined whether emotional closeness, defined as attachment history with the yawning model, affected the strength of contagion, and compared the contagiousness of yawning to nose-wiping. Thirty-three orphaned chimpanzees observed an unfamiliar and familiar human (their surrogate human mother) yawn, gape and nose-wipe. Yawning, but not nose-wiping, was contagious for juvenile chimpanzees, while infants were immune to contagion. Like humans and dogs, chimpanzees are subject to a developmental trend in susceptibility to contagious yawning, and respond to heterospecific yawn stimuli. Emotional closeness with the model did not affect contagion. The familiarity-biased social modulatory effect on yawn contagion previously found among some adult primates, seem to only emerge later in development, or be limited to interactions with conspecifics. The influence of the 'chameleon effect', targeted vs. generalised empathy, perspective-taking and visual attention on contagious yawning is discussed.