A good laugh is contagious. These New Zealand parrots seem to agree.

When researcher Raoul Schwing went up to the valley, a bird tried to take apart his car.

Photo from iStock.

That bird, a kea, was precisely the reason he was there. Keas are large parrots that live in the mountainous areas of New Zealand's South Island. They're wicked smart and armed with a beak like a Swiss army knife, which makes them great at dismantling puzzles (and Schwing's poor car).


They're also highly social and love to play with each other, chasing their bird peers in complex aerial dogfights or hopping across the ground and making a huge variety of whoops and calls. It was those play calls that Schwing was really interested in, a kind of squeaky "bwa-ha-haaaa."

It sounded — well, it sounded a lot like laughter.

Was it laughter Schwing was hearing? That raises a weird question: Can animals even laugh?

Photo from iStock.

Laughter is a difficult concept to study. There are plenty of animals that sound like they’re laughing. Kookaburras, for instance, or hyenas. But a kookaburra’s laugh is territorial, not gleeful, and a hyena’s cackling seems to be the equivalent of a nervous wail, not it enjoying a particularly hilarious joke.

True laughter is as much as message as it is a noise. In humans, it's a way to communicate playfulness or relaxation and a way to infect others with that mood as well. We might laugh at our dates' corny jokes not because they're the next Tig Notaro, but to show we're having a good time. We giggle when we're nervous to let off steam, and we add laugh tracks under sitcoms to invite the audience into the joke.

In this emotional messaging capacity, most animals aren't part of the evolutionary comedy club. But there are some. It turns out that rats enjoy a good tickle. There's tentative evidence dogs might laugh. Great apes, like chimps or orangutans, seem to laugh too. None of them sounds like human laughter — rats giggle at frequencies too high for humans to hear and chimps sound like they're panting — but they seem to carry that oh-so-important emotional messaging.

But do keas deserve entry into this group? Maybe, says Schwing.

Photo from Raoul Schwing.

When Schwing went to the research sites, he brought with him a specially designed, kea-proof speaker system (no taking apart this one). From a distance, he could use a remote control to play a variety of recorded calls at the kea.

Most didn't seem to have any specific effect, but the play call — that bwa-ha-ha noise — did. When he played it, nearby kea often would turn to each other and begin hopping and playfully chasing each other around. Even solitary birds got into the act, playing with objects or doing aerial acrobatics. In short, the play call definitely seemed to fit the emotional contagion category.

So while it may be going a bit far to label this as laughter as we humans know it, it could at least be a cousin of it.

Schwing and his team published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

These kinds of studies can have a lot of interesting results, but maybe most of all, they remind us how complex animals can be.

Some researchers have used it to study how our brains organize emotion or create a mood; there's even a potential antidepressant currently being tested that got its start from studying laughter in rats. Others have used laughter in the great apes to speculate about our own human roots.

For Schwing and his colleagues, studying the kea's play call gave them a window into the animal's social life. They're planning to continue to study the role of play in the kea's lives.

If nothing else, it's something to think about. "If animals can laugh," said Schwing, "we are not so different from them."

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

Keep Reading Show less

Part of the reason why the O.J. Simpson trial still captures our attention 25 years later is because it's filled with complexities - and complexities on top of complexities at that. Kim Kardashian West finally opened up about her experience during the O.J. Simpson trial on the third season of David Letterman's Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, adding another layer to the situation.

Kardashian, who was 14 at the time, said she was close to Simpson before the trial, calling him "Uncle O.J." The whole Kardashian-Jenner brood even went on a family vacation in Mexico with the Simpsons just weeks before Nicole's murder.


Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

Keep Reading Show less
via Jody Danielle Fisher / Facebook

Breast milk is an incredibly magical food. The wonderful thing is that it's produced by a collaboration between mother and baby.

British mother Jody Danielle Fisher shared the miracle of this collaboration on Facebook recently after having her 13-month-old child vaccinated.

In the post, she compared the color of her breast milk before and after the vaccination, to show how a baby's reaction to the vaccine has a direct effect on her mother's milk production.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

We've heard that character is on the ballot this election—but also that policy matters more than personality. We've heard that integrity and honesty matter—but also that we're electing the leader of a nation, not the leader of a Boy Scout troop.

How much a candidate's character matters has been a matter of debate for decades. But one of the odd juxtapositions of the Trump era is that arguably the most historically immoral, character-deficient candidate has been embraced by the evangelical Christian right, who tout morality more than most. Trump won the right's "moral majority" vote by pushing conservative policies, and there is a not-so-small percentage of "one issue" voters—the issue being abortion—who are willing to overlook any and all manner of sin for someone who says they want to "protect the unborn."

So when a prominent, staunchly pro-life, conservative Christian pastor comes out with a biblical argument that basically says "Yeah, no, the benefit doesn't outweigh the cost," it makes people sit up and listen.


Keep Reading Show less