Current Zoology(formerly Acta Zoologica Sinica),    2011, 57(4): 477 - 484
Title: No evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria
Authors: Anna WILKINSON, Natalie SEBANZ, Isabella MANDL, Ludwig HUBER
 D e p a r t m e n t   o f   C o g n i t i v e   B i o l o g y ,   U n i v e r s i t y   o f   V i e n n a ,   A l t h a n s t r a s s e   1 4 ,   V i e n n a ,   1 0 9 0 ,   A u s t r i a 

 Three hypotheses have attempted to explain the phenomenon of contagious yawning. It has been hypothesized that it is a fixed action pattern for which the releasing stimulus is the observation of another yawn, that it is the result of non-conscious mimicry emerging through close links between perception and action or that it is the result of empathy, involving the ability to engage in mental state attribution. This set of experiments sought to distinguish between these hypotheses by examining contagious yawning in a species that is unlikely to show nonconscious mimicry and empathy but does respond to social stimuli: the red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria. A demonstrator tortoise was conditioned to yawn when presented with a red square-shaped stimulus. Observer tortoises were exposed to three conditions: observation of conditioned yawn, non demonstration control, and stimulus only control. We measured the number of yawns for each observer animal in each condition. There was no difference between conditions. Experiment 2 therefore increased the number of conditioned yawns presented. Again, there was no significant difference between conditions. It seemed plausible that the tortoises did not view the conditioned yawn as a real yawn and therefore a final experiment was run using video recorded stimuli. The observer tortoises were presented with three conditions: real yawn, conditioned yawns and empty background. Again there was no significant difference between conditions. We therefore conclude that the red-footed tortoise does not yawn in response to observing a conspecific yawn. This suggests that contagious yawning is not the result of a fixed action pattern but may involve more complex social processes [Current Zoology 57 (4): 477–484, 2011].

Keywords: Reptile, Contagious yawn, Empathy, Nonconscious mimicry, Fixed action pattern

*Correspondence should be addressed to Anna WILKINSON (

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