Humans live with the illusion that there is a distinct line between us and everything else in the animal kingdom. People are unique and independent, with our own special ambitions and traits, while animals fall pretty much into one of two categories: pets and dinner. That's why every once in a while we like to remind everyone of all of the insane ways animals are just like us. For instance ...
5 Marmosets Make Polite Conversation; Chimps Will Fake Laughter
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We know that animals can communicate, but not like humans. An animal barks or roars to communicate simple things like, "Stay away or I'll kill you!" or "Let's fuck!" Humans, on the other hand, devote most of our words to the fact that we don't have anything to say -- we'll make small talk to avoid awkward silence with the cab driver; we'll fake a laugh to pretend we got the joke with a group of friends. You'd never see, say, monkeys doing that pointless shit, right? That kind of social anxiety takes an advanced brain.
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"Oh God, I said 'you too' when I just meant 'thanks'!" -No monkey ever.
Well, maybe not.
Marmosets (a kind of South American monkey) share the otherwise exclusively human trait of chatting for the sake of it. Scientists have no idea what the monkeys are saying when they're chattering in groups, but have observed that they take turns shooting the shit. In fact, they're even more polite about it than most humans are -- waiting a few seconds after the other has finished speaking so as to avoid interrupting. Researchers observed conversations lasting for up to 30 minutes at a time, at which point, we suppose, even the marmosets made up an excuse to leave.
"Well, I should probably get back to flinging poop. Good talking to you."
The researchers note that chimps and other almost-human apes have a tendency to speak over the top of one another rather than engage in polite discourse. And that marmosets tend to chat more frequently with monkeys other than those whom they are mated with, which, when you think about it, is also an oddly human phenomenon.
And then you have chimpanzees. Scientists know that, chimps being highly playful creatures, most of them spend their time in groups jumping out from behind things, tackling each other, throwing their poop around, etc. Chimp stuff. But in a study of chimp behavior done by researchers at the University of Portsmouth, they found that chimps had two distinct kinds of "laughter" during play time. The ones that were actively engaged in play responded with ordinary laughter, but the other, nearby chimps made a much more forced, less intense, and more deliberate sound. In other words, it was more like the chimp equivalent of you going "heh" after your dad tells a particularly horrid joke.
Or when the alpha chimp tells his racist joke about the two bonobos who walk into a bar.
The researchers suggest that this is the way a chimpanzee who isn't actively engaged in the joke signals to the others "I, too, am having fun." In other words, they're being polite and assuring the others that they aren't moody assholes, a level of social etiquette that even some humans have failed to master.
4 Rats Laugh When You Tickle Them
BBC via Yale Scientific
We don't know if this is the most adorable experiment ever conducted, or the most unsettling. Either way, scientists spent two weeks tickling some rats, and discovered that rats not only love being tickled but they actually giggle while it's happening.
We know what you're probably wondering (or, at least, one of several hundred things you're probably wondering): How do we know that the rats actually enjoy it and are not just squeaking in anguish and confusion? Well, first they conditioned the rats to be afraid of a certain audio tone -- the rats would freeze up and become nervous whenever the sound was played. But then, if they tickled the rats beforehand, the rats showed less physical and hormonal signs of fear when they heard the sound.
On top of that, the sounds that the rats made while being tickled were the same sounds they made when they were playing with other rats, suggesting that they are the rat equivalent of giggling. If the researchers stopped tickling, the rats would often chase their teasing hands around the tank to try to coax more tickles. There are social intricacies to be found as well, since the fun-lovers are more likely to spend time with like-minded fellows.
Furthermore, in a weirdly specific human parallel, the rats that didn't enjoy the interactions (and didn't laugh) tended to be neurotic and antisocial. And because scientists love playing God, they've selectively bred the most playful of the rats over the course of several generations to create a genetically super-ticklish, loud-laughing breed. That definitely won't make it weird when we poison or trap the little bastards years from now.
On the other hand, we can start baiting traps with feathers instead of precious cheese or peanut butter.