Lions yawn to wake up and to coordinate their movements

The full reasons why animals yawn is still work in progress but we have known for a long time that yawning in animals and humans helps to wake us up because it increases blood flow to the head which oxygenates and cools the brain. Yawning is also contagious in animals and humans which we also know about. We can now add to that information because of a study by scientists from the University of Pisa which is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Male lion yawning
Male lion yawning. Photo in public domain.
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They found that when lions yawn they started moving in the same way to cooperate in hunting and in caring for their young. It appears that yawning is a trigger to start cooperative behaviours. They studied yawning in wild Lions in South Africa. Yawning is as contagious to lions as it is to humans and elephants (and other species).

Once a lion had been ‘infected’ by another’s yawn and yawned themselves when the first lion stood up after yawning, the other lion followed suit and the two tended to coordinate their movements. Elisabetta Palagi, an ethologist at the University of Pisa and I believe the lead author and scientist said: “The data showed a clear picture: after yawning together, two lions would engage in highly synchronous behaviour.”

The lion is a social species. We know about their prides which are well coordinated groups of lions. Yawning would appear to be especially important to lions because of their sociability. They have to work together to defend themselves and raise their offspring and hunt.

Palagi and her team filmed 19 lions in two prides living at the Makalali Game Reserve. Perhaps unsurprisingly the chance of a lion yawning was 139 times higher if he or she had seen a member of the pride yawning than under different circumstances.

And lions tended to yawn more when relaxed and in between sleeping and waking. This supported the notion that lions yawn to wake up, as mentioned, and as is the case for humans.

The director of the Adaptive Behavior and Cognition Lab at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York, Andrew Gallup, suggested that contagious yawning evolved to encourage an animal group to be more vigilant to aid survival.

He also suggested that contagious yawning is about “collective awareness and threat detection”. There may be other benefits to contagious yawning which are yet to be discovered and analysed. It may serve multiple purposes.

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A study concerning another type of lion, the sea lion, found that they yawned in response to frequent stressful events which induced levels of anxiety. They yawned and self-scratched as an indicator of short-term anxiety. That is another example of how yawning relates to behaviours and activities in animals.

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