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July 23, 2008


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i feel you are sound on macaque-riddance.


It might work, although it's just as possible some male macaque will decide you're threatening his family and go straight for your throat.

Also, most yawning animals (or smiling ones) are showing their teeth, but when baboons yawn, so I'm told, they're just yawning... when they get P.O.'d, they blink very fast -- their eyelids are white and it's like flashing a light. Once the fight is joined, they will show teeth to each other, but by then they're making such combative roars and growls, you really don't need to watch for a yawn to catch on. I love baboons, but THEY ARE SCARY when they get angry.

Oh, also, MOST animals are showing threat when they smile, except for wolves or dogs. When canids smile, it's because they're having a good time and are happy. Check the news footage of huskies when they start the Iditarod Race -- they always have film of that -- all the little huskies wearing booties smiling and happy. When a canid is angry, it will growl and snarl and they curl up their lips like an Elvis impersonator. So when your dog is smiling, it's 'cause he or she is having fun. And when domestic cats yawn, they're just tired, maybe they had to get by with only 14 or 15 hours of sleep that day.

Susan McCarthy

You're right that sometimes a yawn is just a yawn. It's also a good point that it's risky to seem too threatening. That's the tactful thing about a yawn – it's deniable. “No, no, that wasn't directed at you, I was just yawning. I'm so sleepy, for some reason...” So it's best to look off to the side while yawning.

The evidence that baboons also use yawns as displays is pretty good. Craig Packer's observations of wild male baboons are interesting. For example, males with worn or broken teeth yawn less than males with good teeth – but if they're the only males around, they yawn just as much. (“Male Dominance and Reproductive Activity,” Anim. Beh. 27: 37—45; 1979.)

The eyelid-flashing signal is one of those signals that usually goes right over the heads of humans, since it's not in our repertoire. In Ethology class in college, where they told us about this, my classmate Kristi and I had a plan to paint our eyelids white and simultaneously blink at the professor when he annoyed us, but sadly we never got around to it. (Kristi Mall Naelapaa Puusepp, where are you?)

Your compassion for the way cats never get enough sleep is admirable. Why SHOULD they smile? Though I would consider trading the ability to smile for the ability to purr.


You're right -- I said it sloppily -- SOMETIMES baboons are JUST yawning (even as sometimes a cigar may be just a cigar)

And while humans don't consciously recognize some signals (as eyelid blinking) they often pick up things like that on a level below conscious recognition.

A wonderful man, the late Hal Markowitz, specialized in behavior of captive animals, and took a lot of crap from other zoologists for it -- they didn't recognize captive animals as actually HAVING behavior. Anyway, once he told me how he'd gone to work at his office at SF State, as always, saying Hi and Howdy to everyone he knew, smiling and handshaking and shoulder touching and etc and doing everything BUT waggling his eyebrows up and down to emphasize what he was saying. Told me that by the end of the day, most of the others approached him quietly and asked "Are you mad at me? Did I do something to offend you?" None of them could identify WHAT IT WAS that made them feel uneasy.

As to cats, the cartoonist R.O. Blechman once presented a basic truth when he drew the levels of evolution on a flight of stairs, from single-cells through reptiles and birds and mammals and primates, each one another step up, finally reaching humans... but one more step up, on the top of the steps, just above the human -- was the crown of creation -- a cat, sleeping.

Susan McCarthy

That's a great story about Hal Markowitz. (I must try that the next time I want to make people think I'm disturbingly weird.) I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times during his brief tenure at the Portland Zoo in Oregon. He had a system set up in which the gibbons could pull a lever when a light went on, causing a light to go on at the other end of the enclosure – if they went to the second light and pulled a second lever, they'd get a piece of orange. There were three gibbons, and after they figured it out, the father gibbon stationed himself next to the food dispenser, and just waited for his child to pull the first lever. The child would come hurtling hand over hand across the cage, but could never get there in time to get the orange.

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