Sharing playful mood: rapid facial mimicry in Suricata suricatta

One of the most productive behavioural domains to study visual communication in mammals is social play. The ability to manage play fighting interactions can favour the development of communicative modules and their correct decoding. Due to their high levels of social cohesion and cooperation, slender-tailed meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are a very good model to test some hypotheses on the role of facial communication in synchronizing playful motor actions. We found that the relaxed open mouth (ROM), a playful facial expression conveying a positive mood in several social mammals, is also present in meerkats. ROM was mainly perceived during dyadic playful sessions compared to polyadic ones. We also found that meerkats mimic in a very rapid and automatic way the ROM emitted by playmates (Rapid Facial Mimicry, RFM). RFM was positively correlated with the relationship quality shared by subjects, thus suggesting that the mimicry phenomenon is socially modulated. Moreover, more than the mere presence of isolated ROMs, the presence of at RFM prolonged the duration of the play session. Through RFM animals can share the emotional mood, they are experiencing and this appears to be particularly adaptive in those species, whose relationships are not inhibited by rank rules and when animals build and maintain their bonds through social affiliation. The meerkat society is cohesive and cooperative. Such features could have, therefore, favoured the evolution of facial mimicry, a phenomenon linked to emotional contagion, one of the most basic forms of empathy. © 2019, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.

One of the most productive behavioural domains to study visual communication in mammals is social play. The ability to manage play fighting interactions can favour the development of communicative modules and their correct decoding. Due to their high levels of social cohesion and cooperation, slender-tailed meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are a very good model to test some hypotheses on the role of facial communication in synchronizing playful motor actions. We found that the relaxed open mouth (ROM), a playful facial expression conveying a positive mood in several social mammals, is also present in meerkats. ROM was mainly perceived during dyadic playful sessions compared to polyadic ones. We also found that meerkats mimic in a very rapid and automatic way the ROM emitted by playmates (Rapid Facial Mimicry, RFM). RFM was positively correlated with the relationship quality shared by subjects, thus suggesting that the mimicry phenomenon is socially modulated. Moreover, more than the mere presence of isolated ROMs, the presence of at RFM prolonged the duration of the play session. Through RFM animals can share the emotional mood, they are experiencing and this appears to be particularly adaptive in those species, whose relationships are not inhibited by rank rules and when animals build and maintain their bonds through social affiliation. The meerkat society is cohesive and cooperative. Such features could have, therefore, favoured the evolution of facial mimicry, a phenomenon linked to emotional contagion, one of the most basic forms of empathy. © 2019, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.

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