We've all caught ourselves yawning right after a friend yawns, and some people even describe this phenomenon with their pet dogs and cats. But now, for the first time, researchers have discovered a non-mammalian species that is susceptible to "contagious yawning:" budgies. These popular pet birds yawn more when they are shown video of another budgie yawning.
This is undeniably cool, but it is also interesting. Contagious yawning is an expression of empathy, or a the very least is related to empathic ability. Empathy is obviously very important for social animals, since it provides the "glue" that maintains social relationships, allows an individual to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and enhances fitness through making social group function more efficient (and fulfilling!). Contagious yawning is not obviously useful alone, but is instead a manifestation of a larger, and evolutionarily important, trait: the ability to feel empathy.
* The more times you type out the word yawn, the stranger it looks.
The common pet budgerigar is loved for its ability to mimic its owners. But it has another special trick – it can catch yawns from other budgies, suggesting it has some kind of empathy. "Practically all vertebrates yawn," says Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni of City University, London. In 2008, he showed that dogs can catch yawns from humans. The only other species shown to yawn contagiously are humans, chimpanzees and a type of rodent called the high-yawning Sprague-Dawley rat. But Andrew Gallup of the State University of New York and his colleagues have now shown for the first time that the same happens for a species of non-mammals.