WATCH: Great ape children poke and run from adults, like humans

In a study recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a UCLA-led team of scientists observed that much like human children, all species of great apes — orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — engage in playful teasing and mildly harassing behavior to provoke a response in adults or attract their attention.

“It was common for teasers to repeatedly wave or swing a body part or object in the middle of the target’s field of vision, hit or poke them, stare closely at their face, disrupt their movements, pull on their hair or perform other behaviors that were extremely difficult for the target to ignore,” said Erica Cartmill, senior author and UCLA anthropology professor.

While this behavior might appear infantile or immature, there is social intelligence at play —including the ability to anticipate future actions and recognize and appreciate the violation of others’ expectations, says Cartmill, who also holds a faculty position at Indiana University.

From an evolutionary perspective, teasing and joking were likely present about 13 million years ago in the last common ancestor of humans and apes, according to first author Isabelle Laumer, a postdoc in Cartmill’s lab at UCLA who is now a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany.

The study was supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.


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