RESEARCH: Lions yawn when it’s time to get moving

In research conducted in 2020, scientists think that lions have contagious yawns – when one lion yawns, nearby lions yawn too. This is shown in human behaviour too. Also, scientists noticed that a lion’s yawn signals to other lions that it is time to get moving.

Scientist Elisabetta Palagi at the University of Pisa in Italy, and her research students, were collecting hyena data in South Africa. The New Scientist magazine in April 2021 reported that the researchers also filmed lion behaviour. Elisabetta Palagi noticed, when she watched the videos, that the African Lions (Panthera leo) were yawning one after the other and then got up and moved in near-synchroncity – that is, they all made similar movements. 

Palagi’s research students, Grazia Casett and Andrea Paolo Nolfo, observed 19 lions living in two social groups at the Siyafunda Wildlife & Conservation Camp, which is a research camp in the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve in Limpopo province in South Africa. They took about five hours of video for each African Lion, day and night, over four months in 2020. 

The researchers found that the second lion started yawning within three minutes of the first lion. In 75% of occasions, the yawn occurred within one minute. The researchers also realised that the yawning signalled to the whole group that it was time to get up and start walking. The lions were 11 times more likely to synchronise their next moves with the first lion. The researchers called the first lion that yawned, the “trigger” lion. 

“After they yawned together, if the trigger stood up, then within seconds the second lion did the same,” says Palagi.

The lions did not yawn when they were already active or ending a conflict over food. Instead, the lions almost always yawned while they were resting or transitioning between rest and a period of action. 

Despite this newly-documented research, Palagi said, “It’s difficult to separate and categorise the different kind of yawns because they can all be due to a mixture of factors.”

Journal reference: Animal Behaviour, February 2021. 

Location of photographs: Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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