How kea make each other laugh

Study finds kea have distinctive play call, which puts other kea in a playful mood, similar to how laughter can spread through humans.

Study finds kea have distinctive play call, which puts other kea in a playful mood, similar to how laughter can spread through humans.

PLAY TIME: Two juvenile kea play on the ground. A new study shows kea have a distinctive play call that can spread playful behaviour between them, much like infectious laughter in humans. Picture by Raoul Schwing

LAUGHTER and playfulness can spread between the South Island’s kea much in the same way as humans, according to a new study.

The kea is the world’s only mountain parrot and is world famous for its antics, often involving removing the rubber from car windows and stealing food.

A study published in Current Biology today found kea have a distinctive play call, which puts other kea in a playful mood, similar to how laughter can spread through humans.

Researchers recorded the call and played it to kea in the wild.

They found that it made kea play with other birds, and if the kea were alone it often inspired them to perform aerial acrobatics or play with objects.

Researchers think it is similar to infectious laughter in humans.

When people are feeling playful, they giggle and laugh, making others around them want to laugh and play too.
This kind of emotional contagion was previously only seen in mammals, with similar findings for chimpanzees and rats.

Playback

Researcher Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria said using a playback of these calls they found kea not playing were animated to do so. He completed the work while he was a PhD student at the University of Auckland.

“The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state.”

Mr Schwing and his colleagues became interested in this particular call after carefully analysing the kea’s full vocal repertoire.

It became clear the play call was used in connection with the birds’ play behaviour.

Researchers then played recordings of play calls to groups of wild kea for five minutes.

Control calls

The researchers also played other kea calls and the calls of a South Island robin as controls.

When the birds heard the play calls, it led them to play more and play longer in comparison to the other sounds.

“Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already under way, but instead started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics,” the researchers wrote.

“These instances suggest that kea were not ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call-induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalisations can act as a positive emotional contagion.”

The researchers now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally.

Mr Schwing said the findings came as an intriguing reminder.

“If animals can laugh, we are not so different from them.”

LAUGHTER and playfulness can spread between the South Island’s kea much in the same way as humans, according to a new study.

The kea is the world’s only mountain parrot and is world famous for its antics, often involving removing the rubber from car windows and stealing food.

A study published in Current Biology today found kea have a distinctive play call, which puts other kea in a playful mood, similar to how laughter can spread through humans.

Researchers recorded the call and played it to kea in the wild.

They found that it made kea play with other birds, and if the kea were alone it often inspired them to perform aerial acrobatics or play with objects.

Researchers think it is similar to infectious laughter in humans.

When people are feeling playful, they giggle and laugh, making others around them want to laugh and play too.
This kind of emotional contagion was previously only seen in mammals, with similar findings for chimpanzees and rats.

Playback

Researcher Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria said using a playback of these calls they found kea not playing were animated to do so. He completed the work while he was a PhD student at the University of Auckland.

“The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state.”

Mr Schwing and his colleagues became interested in this particular call after carefully analysing the kea’s full vocal repertoire.

It became clear the play call was used in connection with the birds’ play behaviour.

Researchers then played recordings of play calls to groups of wild kea for five minutes.

Control calls

The researchers also played other kea calls and the calls of a South Island robin as controls.

When the birds heard the play calls, it led them to play more and play longer in comparison to the other sounds.

“Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already under way, but instead started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics,” the researchers wrote.

“These instances suggest that kea were not ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call-induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalisations can act as a positive emotional contagion.”

The researchers now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally.

Mr Schwing said the findings came as an intriguing reminder.

“If animals can laugh, we are not so different from them.”

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