Yawning helps Lions synchronize group movements
Watching a group of lions yawn may seem like nothing more than large, lazy cats acting sleepy, but new research suggests that these yawns can subtly communicate important social signals. Yawning is not only contagious in lions, but it appears to help predators synchronize their movements, researchers report in the journal Animal Behavior.
The discovery was partly made by chance, explains Elisabetta Palagi, an ethologist at the University of Pisa in Italy. While studying the play behavior of spotted hyenas in South Africa, she and her colleagues often had the opportunity to observe lions at the same time. And she quickly noticed that the lions were yawning quite frequently, concentrating those yawns over short periods of time, according to the German news agency. Yawning is ubiquitous in vertebrates, possibly increasing blood flow to the skull, cooling the brain and aiding alertness, especially during the transition from rest to rest, the Science News website reported. In many species – such as humans, monkeys and even parakeets – yawns can infect viewers with their “yawning contagion,” leading viewers to yawn soon after.
For four months in 2019, researchers closely monitored 19 lions in the Grand Makalali private game reserve. The team found that lions who saw another Pride member yawn were about 139 times more likely to yawn themselves within three minutes. But the yawning contagion didn’t stop there. Lions who caught a yawn from another lion were 11 times more likely to mirror the original yawns movements than those who did not. This motor synchronization “involved one lion yawning, then another yawn, then the first getting up and walking or lying down and the other doing the same.
In lions, contagious yawning could be important for maintaining social cohesion, Palagi says. Yawns that help lions harmonize their group movements could help put pride on the same wavelength, a crucial behavior for an animal that hunts and raises its offspring cooperatively. Palagi notes that yawning often marks a change between different physiological or emotional states. Thus, a yawn could be a good way for an individual of a social species to communicate to the partners of the group that he is undergoing some kind of internal change.