Tortoise’s Yawns are not Contagious
Oct 5, 2011
By Andy Dolan
Dr Anna Wilkinson spent six months teaching a tortoise how to yawn – to prove other tortoises could not do the same.
The resulting study, entitled ‘No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise’, last week won the physiology award at the Ig Nobels, a parody of the annual international awards for achievements in realms of science, medicine and for peace.
Other winners at the ceremony, now in its 21st year and held at Harvard University, included researchers who found that the male buprestid beetle likes to copulate with Australian beer bottles called stubbies, and the team who examined why discus throwers become dizzy but hammer throwers do not.
To win an Ig, scientists must ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think’.
Dr Wilkinson, 30, yesterday said the award would ‘Contribute significantly to raising the profile of research into tortoise and other reptile behaviour.’
The lecturer in animal behaviour at the University of Lincoln, spent six months training a red-footed tortoise called Alexandra to yawn on command.
The reptile expert and her team then spent weeks getting the tortoise to perform its new party piece in front of other tortoises to see if the reptiles felt the urge to respond with a yawn of their own – a process dubbed ‘contagious yawning’.
She said current research, mainly with primates and dogs, suggests that contagious yawning may require empathy and therefore was only likely to occur in creatures with high level intelligence.
Dr Wilkinson added: ‘Contagious yawning has always been considered very high level cognitively. We wanted to see whether this was actually the case by testing a species that is not considered to have empathy.
‘Initially, we spent six months training one tortoise, Alexandra, to yawn on command.
‘After running many experiments with eleven other tortoises we found no evidence of contagious yawning at all, and so it does suggest that it may be controlled by a high level mechanism. Though what that exact mechanism is remains unclear.’
Dr Wilkinson insisted she was not disappointed with the results of the study, which forms part of her work studying the spatial, visual and social cognition in tortoises.
She added: ‘I was so sure the other tortoises would copy Alexandra, but a negative result is still exciting.
‘Some species (like lions) yawn to show their canines, so it can be difficult to say if it is a cognitive sign or an antagonistic action.
‘We now know reptiles show cognitive signs that decades ago we thought only existed in humans. The more we understand of this, the more we can help their conservation and welfare in the future.’
The Ig Nobel awards are handed out by real Nobel Prize winners. The ceremony is organised by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research, and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and the Harvard Computer Society.
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