Birds of joy? Searching for an analogue of human laughter in the kea parrot
Is our world one that is full of laughter and joy?
When we look into the eyes of the creatures around us—even those as distantly related to us as birds—we can often sense emotions like joy hidden beneath the surface. But is this intuition correct?
Scientists have made great progress in understanding animal intelligence in the last few decades, yet intelligence goes beyond the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Few have tackled the thorny question of emotions, particularly positive traits such as laughter and joy.
Recent work suggests that both apes and rats may laugh, but we have little idea about non-mammalian species. The 2017 discovery of a link between the warble call and play of the New Zealand kea—an iconic mountain parrot—offers an exciting opportunity to explore whether birds are creatures of laughter and joy. This ambitious project led by Alexander Taylor will examine if the kea warble call is an analogue of human laughter by testing if the call:
1. makes kea feel more optimistic,
2. makes kea friendlier,
3. makes them fight less,
4. is affected by weather,
5. decreases stress, and
6. boosts kea health.
Evidence that these six signatures of human laughter are exhibited in kea would be a giant step towards identifying a non-mammalian “analogue of joy.” In New Zealand, such findings could energize the public to save this endangered species. In turn, this would lead to increased research in these areas and so catalyze science to unlock the mysteries within animal minds.