Playful New Zealand parrots have 'contagious laughter' too

A new study has found that the kea parrot has a powerful "play call" that can put others in the mood to play as well.

Kea, the world's only alpine parrot, have a range of calls, but one in particular appears to be used in connection with the bird's complex play behaviour. But to show whether actual emotions are triggered in keas by the "laughter" you would have to "find some way of measuring the emotional state of both the callers and listeners". Many birds began playing with their more serious compatriots, while others began playing with objects, or started performing aerobatics in the air, according to a study published today in Current Biology.
The average number of play bouts per bird monitored was 20 times higher during those periods than when birds heard the other recordings.

Wild keas - a large parrot species from New Zealand - engaged in playful behavior when researchers played recordings of kea play calls on speakers.

"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", study co-author Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria said in a statement.

Raoul Schwing of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, and his team played 5-minute recordings to gatherings of between two and a dozen wild keas on a mountainside of New Zealand's Arthur's Pass National Park, on the southern island.

To carry out their investigation, the scientists recorded the sound and played it back to wild birds at Arthur's Pass National Park, on New Zealand's South Island. Instead, they concluded that it induces playfulness due to its acting as a positive emotional contagion. This, in turn, could promote tolerance and sync up moods when an individual is interacting with others. Scientists know that play vocalisation in some species can act as a form of emotional contagion. Playful animals are usually inattentive, so emitting sounds would draw even more attention to them at a time when they are already vulnerable to predators. This could help to explain why they evolved their own form of laughter.

Emotionally contagious sounds are not always happy ones, though. "Alarm calls and aggressive growls, for example seem to have an emotionally contagious effect on the receiver".

Contagious "laughter" has also been reported in non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, and rodents. He noted that people might tear up watching others cry, or while listening to sad music at a movie. The scientists hypothesised that these play calls could act like laughter in humans, spreading from one bird to the next and eliciting play.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to investigate the effects further to determine how play and play calls influence kea social groups.

Keas just want to have fun. Mark Taylor


New Zealand's playful parrots revealed: Kea found to be the first bird that can make its friends laugh with an ‘emotionally contagious’ call

It’s often said that laughter is contagious, and for one playful bird from New Zealand, researchers have found this to be especially true.

A new study has found that the kea parrot has a powerful ‘play call’ that can put others in the mood to play as well.

According to the researchers, the bird is now considered the first non-mammal to demonstrate ‘emotionally contagious’ vocalizations.

Researchers investigated the kea’s ‘play call’ after an analysis of the bird’s full vocal repertoire revealed this vocalization was linked to other birds’ behaviour.

The researchers played recordings of the play calls to groups of wild kea for five minutes, along with other types of calls.

As a control, they also played recordings of the South Island robin.

Doing so revealed that some birds began to spontaneously play upon hearing the play call.

‘We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so,’ says Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria.

‘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.’

The researchers found that the recordings led to a higher number of play sessions among the birds, and for a longer period of time than observed when they had not heard the stimulus.

This, they say, is much like a form of ‘infectious laughter,’ and similar vocalizations have been observed in chimpanzees and rats.

‘Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already underway, 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 write.

‘These instances suggest that kea weren’t ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalizations can act as a positive emotional contagion.’

Moving forward, the researchers plan to investigate the effects further to determine how play and play calls influence kea social groups.

And, while they note comparisons to humans may be somewhat anthropomorphic, Schwing says that ‘If animals can laugh, we are not so different from them.’


For this New Zealand parrot, 'laughter' is contagious

When people are feeling playful, they giggle and laugh, making others around them want to laugh and play too. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on March 20 have found that the particularly playful kea parrot from New Zealand has a "play call" with a similarly powerful influence. When other kea hear that call, it puts them into a playful mood.

The findings make kea the first known non-mammal to have such an "emotionally contagious" vocalization, the researchers say. Earlier studies had made similar findings for chimpanzees and rats.

"We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so," says Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria. "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."

Schwing and his colleagues got interested in this particular call after carefully analyzing the kea's full vocal repertoire. It was clear to them that the play call was used in connection with the birds' play behavior. That made them curious to know how kea in the wild would respond to the recorded calls.

To find out, the researchers played recordings of play calls to groups of wild kea for a period of five minutes. 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 underway, 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 write. "These instances suggest that kea weren't 'invited' to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalizations can act as a positive emotional contagion."

While it might be a bit anthropomorphic, they continue, the kea play calls can be compared to a form of infectious laughter. The researchers say that they now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally.

For the rest of us, the findings come as an intriguing reminder: "If animals can laugh," Schwing says, "we are not so different from them."

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