Chimps ‘find yawning contagious even if they are just watching a cartoon character yawn’
Scientists have long known that yawning can spread, like other facial actions such as smiling and frowning, through groups.
Even when humans watch cartoons or soap operas they identify with the people being represented, even though they know they are not real.
But researchers wanted to test if animals would respond in the same way to fictional characters.
The study, by researchers at Emory University in America, found that whenever an animated chimpanzee yawned in a cartoon the real chimpanzee watching would often also yawn.
The team behind the research believe that the findings, which are published in the journal Biology Letters, suggests that the animals can and do empathise with a fictional world and that they treat the cartoons almost as one of their own species.
The research could lead to greater understanding of why empathy with fictional characters appears innate in children, they say.
Scientists believe that people who yawn when they see someone else yawning are more in touch with the feelings of others.
Evolutionary biologists have suggested that yawning might be contagious because humans once lived in groups where the action could be used possibly to co-ordinate sleeping or to raise an alert.