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Great apes use humor just like humans do, researchers discover

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO LAUGHING)

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. What you're hearing is the infectious laughter of the bonobo. A group of researchers recently discovered that these great apes use humor just like humans do. Erica Cartmill is a professor of anthropology at Indiana University studying primate humor.

ERICA CARTMILL: The setup and the punchline was something that I really wanted to explore in apes, to see how often this kind of structure appeared, what forms it took, and how widely spread this kind of behavior was.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Cartmill worked with researcher Isabelle Laumer, who's affiliated with UCLA, and together they studied videos of apes in San Diego and Leipzig, Germany.

ISABELLE LAUMER: We looked for behaviors that appeared provocative, playful, but also had a bit of a naughty streak (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Cartmill says conclusions about the playful teasing are hard to pin down.

CARTMILL: We struggled quite a bit with trying to figure out what is a provocative behavior. And the best working definition that we could come up with is it's something that's difficult to ignore.

MARTÍNEZ: So what exactly does it look like when apes tease one another? Laumer says it's not too far off from what humans do, with a few exceptions.

LAUMER: Poking, hitting, hindering movement, body slam, pulling on body - these were within the top five behaviors.

FADEL: And when they're playing, eye contact helps keep playtime from turning too violent, like with orangutans.

LAUMER: Hair pulling was quite frequent, and this is probably because they have this long hair and it's probably fun to pull at this hair (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: The researchers say playful behavior helps all sorts of animals socialize with one another, so Cartmill says they're crowdsourcing new material to study other species.

CARTMILL: We're hoping that we'll be able to create a repository where people can contribute anecdotes and examples and potentially even video of the playful, teasing behavior that they see around them.

FADEL: Maybe these could replace your favorite cat videos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.