Smell facilitates auditory contagious yawning in stranger rats

Abstract

Most vertebrates yawn in situations ranging from relaxation to tension, but only humans and other primate species that show mental state attribution skills have been convincingly shown to display yawn contagion. Whether complex forms of empathy are necessary for yawn contagion to occur is still unclear. As empathy is a phylogenetically continuous trait, simple forms of empathy, such as emotional contagion, might be sufficient for non-primate species to show contagious yawning. In this study, we exposed pairs of male rats, which were selected for high yawning, with each other through a perforated wall and found that olfactory cues stimulated yawning, whereas visual cues inhibited it. Unexpectedly, cage-mate rats failed to show yawn contagion, although they did show correlated emotional reactivity. In contrast, stranger rats showed auditory contagious yawning and greater rates of smell-facilitated auditory contagious yawning, although they did not show correlated emotional reactivity. Strikingly, they did not show contagious yawning to rats from a low-yawning strain. These findings indicate that contagious yawning may be a widespread trait amongst vertebrates and that mechanisms other than empathy may be involved. We suggest that a communicatory function of yawning may be the mechanism responsible for yawn contagion in rats, as contagiousness was strain-specific and increased with olfactory cues, which are involved in mutual recognition.

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Acknowledgments

We thank E. Beristain Castillo for critical discussions on the manuscript and technical help with drug preparations, and two anonymous referees for constructive comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. We also thank A. Escobar Noriega, R. Camarillo Aragón, O. Isidro Maldonado and M. Ita Amador for observing and recording the rats’ behaviour; and G. Gómez Correa for administering the drug treatment to the rats. A.M. was partially funded by the Vicerrectoría de Investigación y Estudios de Posgrado. The work formed part of the thesis of X.R.-Z. as partial fulfilment of requirements for a BSc Biomedicine degree.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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The experiments complied with all applicable institutional and Mexican laws concerning the use of animals in research.

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Correspondence to Alejandro Moyaho.

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Alejandro Moyaho and Xaman Rivas-Zamudio are joint first authors.

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Moyaho, A., Rivas-Zamudio, X., Ugarte, A. et al. Smell facilitates auditory contagious yawning in stranger rats. Anim Cogn 18, 279–290 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-014-0798-0

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Keywords

  • Contagious yawning
  • Communicatory function of yawning
  • Empathy
  • Emotional reactivity
  • Emotional contagion
  • Spontaneous penile erections