Facilitating play through communication: significance of teeth exposure in the Gorilla play face

Bridget Waller, L. Cherry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Primate facial expressions (FEs) likely play an important role in primate society: through facial signals, individuals can potentially send and receive information and may benefit from coordinating their behavior accordingly. Many primates use a relaxed open mouth (ROM) facial display or “play face” (PF) during play behavior, where the mouth is open but teeth are covered. In addition to this conventional PF, however, Western Lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) also use a full PF where the upper teeth are exposed. As the teeth are similarly exposed in the bared-teeth expression (which is a signal of appeasement, submission and/or affiliation), the full PF may be a blend of the PF and bared-teeth face, and have a different signal function to the PF alone. Focal animal sampling of captive Western Lowland gorillas (N = 10) showed that the full PF was more often observed in intense rather than gentle play, and intense play bouts that featured the full PF were longer than those that featured only the PF. Both expressions were associated with an increase in affinitive behavior between sender and receiver postplay, but only the full PF was associated with an increase higher than that of play alone. Overall, the findings suggest that the full PF has an additional role in coordinating and maintaining play, possibly though reducing uncertainty in the receiver and confirming that play is only play.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)157-164
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Primatology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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