Laughter, play faces and mimicry in animals: evolution and social functions

Marina Davila Ross, Elisabetta Palagi

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Human laughter and laugh faces show similarities in morphology and function with animal playful expressions. To better understand primordial uses and effects of human laughter and laugh faces, it is important to examine these positive expressions in animals from both homologous and analogous systems. Phylogenetic research on hominids provided empirical evidence on shared ancestry across these emotional expressions, including human laughter and laugh faces. In addition, playful expressions of animals, in general, arguably have a key role in the development of social cognitive skills, a role that may help explain their polyphyletic history. The present work examines the evolution and function of playful expressions in primates and other animals. As part of this effort, we also coded for muscle activations of six carnivore taxa with regard to their open-mouth faces of play; our findings provide evidence that these carnivore expressions are homologues of primate open-mouth faces of play. Furthermore, our work discusses how the expressions of animal play may communicate positive emotions to conspecifics and how the motor resonance of these expressions increases affiliation and bonding between the subjects, resembling in a number of ways the important social-emotional effects that laughter and laugh faces have in humans.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210177
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B
Issue number1863
Early online date21 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2022


  • laughter
  • laugh faces
  • play expressions
  • animal play
  • mimicry
  • evolution


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