Elephants Can ‘Catch’ Yawns From Their Favourite Humans

by : Cameron Frew on : 09 Sep 2020 17:00
Elephants Can 'Catch' Yawns From Their Favourite HumansPA Images

We’ve all seen the chain reaction; one person yawns, then another, then another. Amazingly, elephants find it contagious too. 

It’s a supremely strange phenomenon. Even faking a yawn in front of someone triggers something deep in your brain, making you respond with a yawn of your own.


It’s been observed in animals before, with chimps seen to be yawning after seeing another dominant male yawn, budgies causing others’ beaks to open, as well as dogs responding to their owners’ tiredness. Now, it seems elephants are susceptible to human behaviour.

Check out a video of the elephants yawning below: 


Zoë Rossman, a researcher at the University of New Mexico, first recorded contagious yawning in elephants back in 2017. Her findings were recorded within a herd of captive animals at Knysna Elephant Park in the Western Cape, South Africa’s first facility for orphaned and rescued elephants, looking at 10 African elephants over 13 consecutive nights.


Rossman explained to The Times, ‘Elephants are highly intelligent and social, so they have been a natural next step when branching out from behaviour studies that have originally focused on primates and dogs. Additionally, they have a long and complex history with humans despite having never been domesticated.’

Elephants PA Images

Dogs are our best friends, so we naturally form a close bond with them. As such, Rossman’s study was looking at the dynamic between the captive elephants and their keepers, and whether they would replicate the same habits as more traditionally domestic animals.

She added, ‘The fact that we have observed an elephant, an animal so distantly related to us, contagiously yawn with humans underscores how very highly developed they are. It is a relationship that merits further investigation.’


Rossman found that the herd of elephants ‘had their favourites’ of the keepers, who were ‘hilariously accurate at faking yawns’. The elephants were also more likely to yawn if the humans around them faked or produced a real one, as opposed to just opening their mouths.

African ElephantPA Images

The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, which noted ‘a positive relationship between familiarity among the participants and likelihood of yawning’.

Rossman said, ‘We care about animals that are like us, that we observe human qualities in. It should not ideally be like that, but this study shows that elephants are closer to us than we appreciated and perhaps this will highlight the detrimental effect that the crude management of their societies has.’


Elsewhere, Kavaan, the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’, was finally given approval to leave his Pakistan zoo for a better life.

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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Animals, elephants, Now, Science, South Africa


The Times and 1 other
  1. The Times

    Elephants can catch yawns from humans

  2. Frontiers in Veterinary Science

    Contagious Yawning in African Elephants (Loxodonta africana): Responses to Other Elephants and Familiar Humans