How Alike are Humans and Other Animals? You Might Be Surprised!

Research reveals just how similar humans and other animals are

In some ways it’s surprising humans have fared so well in relation to other animal species. We’re not the fastest. We won’t be winning any races that a cheetah has entered. We aren’t the strongest either. Lifting weights next to a grizzly bear would be humbling. Humans also are on the low end of the spectrum for thick skin, sharp teeth, and [wolverine aside] claws. So what has given humans such an edge? Most notably our ability to work together, communication, technology, and our keen intellect. These advantages were largely made possible through four key physical features: opposable thumbs, large brains, the ability to talk, and bipedalism [walking upright]. Taken individually, none of these traits are exclusive to humans, but the collection of the three has been a game changer. At least in industrial and post-industrial societies, humans have become more and more separated from other animals, physically and cognitively. The following studies remind us just how similar humans and other animals can be…

Humans and Other Species Engage In Self-Reflection, Self-Reliance, & Safe Driving


Dolphins understand, when they look in a mirror, that what they see is a reflection of themself. We know this because they exhibit “primping” behavior. They like to examine parts of their body they usually don’t catch a glimpse of. These elusive parts include the belly and inside of their mouth.

Even more impressive, dolphins show signs of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. There are actually a few animals who seem to be aware of what is happening, or not happening, in their minds.

“When uncertain, the dolphin clearly hesitated and wavered between his two possible responses,”
[J. David Smith, Ph.D] says, “but when certain, he swam toward his chosen response so fast that his bow wave would soak the researchers’ electronic switches.

Patricia Donovan, Evidence Points to Conscious ‘Metacognition’ in Some Nonhuman Animals

When dolphins are taught words, they’re able to grasp both vocabulary and syntax [the way arrangement, or word order, contributes to meaning]. Also, like wolves, elephants, and otters, dolphins grieve. They mourn their dead.


It took Keith Chen and Laurie Santos some time to convince capuchin monkeys that money was useful and valuable. But, once the monkey economy was thriving, they were able to test some pretty nuanced dynamics. The study used human marketplace traders to determine whether the monkeys shared our loss aversion bias or cared about inflation [spoiler: yes and yes].

One day, the monkeys revealed insights that went beyond what was officially being looked at. One monkey [named Felix] took the coins he’d been given and tossed them into the communal area [like a little Robin Hood]. Researchers bought back all of the coins from the monkeys who’d managed to snatch them up, sparing one. The elusive coin was used to purchase sex from another monkey, in what appears to be the first act of monkey prostitution on record. Immediately after, the she exchanged it for grapes.

Safe Driving

Rats, through operant conditioning (using behavioral rewards), have been taught to drive tiny cars repurposed from old food containers. They were even equipped with steering wheels that could be turned using three tiny bars.

Rats are not the only animal on the road. After making a few minor modifications, Mark Vette trained three dogs to drive cars. Although the steering left a little to be desired, I’ve seen video footage of a bonobo driving a jeep through the jungle.

Fire, Friendship, & French Kisses


Bonobos are intelligent animals. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has taught one, named Kanzi, to communicate using a lexigram keyboard. Kanzi can also hold his own playing PacMan.

They’ve been taught how to start fires, and then use them for cooking. Don’t worry, they’ve also been taught to pour water over their fires [once they’re finished eating], to ensure it’s safe to walk away. Apparently toasted marshmallows are one of their prefered delicacies…

Revelations about bonobos’ intellect, societal structure, and relationships have stretched our ideas about the capacity of other species. Like killer whales, elephants, lions, meerkats, and the honey bee, bonobo communities are matriarchal [have a female leader].


Female bonobos form strong bonds that show water [relationships with those unrelated] can be just as thick as blood [relationships with relatives]. Mothers also remain close to their adult children.

In chimpanzee society, every adult male is dominant to every female, and the strongest social bonds are between males. Males regularly attack, and sometimes kill, adults and babies from their own and neighboring groups, sometimes forming coalitions to do battle together. In contrast […] bonobo societies are relatively peaceful, with squabbles rarely escalating to serious violence. Female bonobos spend their time together in the center of the group, grooming, eating and socializing.

Nala Rogers, Bonobo Matriarchs Lead the Way

French Kisses

Bonobos are the only nonhuman species that has been observed french kissing [unless you’re counting vampire bats’ mouth licking to share regurgitated blood]

Why does kissing matter? Well, for starters, romantic kissing isn’t even something all humans do. In one anthropological study, romantic kissing occured in less than half of the cultures examined. Also, it turns out, if you strip the romance away, kissing is a potentially dangerous activity.

Many pathological organisms can be transmitted through mouth-to-mouth contact, including those that cause colds and other respiratory viruses, herpes simplex, tuberculosis, syphilis and strep.

Alisha Ault, Ask Smithsonian: Why Do We Kiss?

Infectious disease spread aside, french kissing is an incredible act of trust. It involves one being putting what is arguably the most sensitive part of its body [the tongue] into the most lethal part of another being’s body [a mouth full of sharp teeth]. Most animals wouldn’t be confident enough in their relationship to take that type of risk…

Empathy, Cooperation, & Inequality Affect Human and Other Animal Interactions

Are Other Species Empathetic?

Animals That Exhibit Yawn Contagion

The growing number of animals that we’ve witnessed being” infected” by a yawn, include:

Humans are unique, but perhaps not to the degree we once imagined
Humans are unique, but perhaps not to the degree we once imagined

Yawn Contagion May Indicate Empathy in Humans and Other Animals

Not all yawns are equal. We may yawn when we’re tired, bored, or fatigued. Sometimes, yawning indicates a medical condition or is a response to stress. We might even yawn as part of motion sickness. The mystery around the purpose of yawning has led to numerous theories, including that yawns are meant to cause a deep breath or cool off the brain. Regardless of why we’re yawning, we may inadvertently set off a chain reaction.

Yawns, it turns out, are contagious on a number of levels. Someone may yawn because they saw someone else yawn, or because they saw a computer generated simulation of a yawn, hearing the sounds that accompany a yawn we’re unable to see may also do the trick. If you’re yawning right now, it’s likely because you’re reading the word yawn, which makes you think about yawning, which can cause a yawn.

But, why? One of the leading theories is that mimicking yawns is a sign of empathy.

In one study, conducted at the University of Connecticut with children between the ages of 1 and 6, the participants under four were significantly less likely to respond in kind when they witnessed yawning. In a variation of the study, participants on the autism spectrum showed higher levels of “immunity” to others yawns. The evidence linking yawn contagion and empathy is still weak. Far more research is needed to tease out this complex phenomenon.

Beyond the Yawn

Empathy relies on the ability to take another’s perspective, to put oneself in another’s shoes. While perspective-taking only requires imagination, empathy also indicates the ability to “feel with” another.

  • Rats will save other rats from drowning [even if it means sacrificing chocolate]
  • Elephants not only participate in funeral rituals, but also revisit gravesites, sometimes years later
  • Animals have been observed comforting one another, comforting humans, and once in a while comforting species they usually have an antagonistic [possibly predatory] relationship with

…there was a case at the San Diego Zoo, where they were filling up the water moat [in the bonobo enclosure]. The juveniles of the group were playing in the empty moat, and the caretakers had not noticed. When they went to the kitchen to turn on the water, all of a sudden in front of the window they saw Kakowet, the old male of the group, and he was waving and screaming at them to draw their attention. They looked at the moat and saw the juveniles and then got them out of there in time, before the moat filled up.

Now, that’s very interesting, because Kakowet himself was not in trouble at all. It was purely that he perceived that water in the moat was not going to be good for these young bonobos. So that’s a case of perspective-taking, and that is actually typical of bonobos, I think.
Bonobos are particularly good at that kind of thing.

Franz de Waal, The Bonobo in All of Us


Elephants aren’t the only non-human animals that will work together if it’s necessary or advantageous. When chimpanzees are given two options, where one is a selfish choice [only they are rewarded] and the other is a prosocial choice [both they and another chimpanzee are rewarded] most prefer sharing their bounty. This extension of concern and care disappears if the other chimpanzee becomes pushy or engages in intimidation tactics.

Humans and other animals seek out new creative ways to work together
Humans and other animals seek out new creative ways to work together

Inequality is an issue for Humans and Other Species

This clip shows, very clearly, just how upset monkeys can become when they are not receiving a fair wage. What isn’t shown here, but is discussed in a longer version of the video, is that sometimes the money that was receiving greater compensation went on strike, refusing to continue the experiment until the pay discrepancy was resolved. Possibly due to a sense of fairness or justice.

Koko the Gorilla’s Life & Legacy

Gorilla Sign Language

Koko the Gorilla, who was born in 1971 at the San Francisco zoo, died in her sleep at a preserve in Woodside, California. Although Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson taught her to sign more than 1000 words, and understand more than 2000, she was perhaps better known for her love of kittens.

Both Humans and Other Animals Enjoy Interspecies Relationships

It was during the winter holidays that Koko asked for a kitten [I’ve not seen any indication that she was sitting on Santa’s lap when the request was made]. As any parent may suspect, researchers initially tried to accommodate her wishes with a stuffed animal. Koko had been hoping for a actual pet, which is what she eventually got. Fond of words that rhymed, Koko named her first kitten “All Ball“. Unfortunately, that kitten was hit and killed by a car. When the world watched Koko expressing grief, there was an outpouring of love, in the form of donated kittens.

In 1985, Koko adopted two of the kittens sent to her, naming them “Smokey” and “Lipstick.” Koko named her final pet kittens, given to her on her 44th birthday, “Ms. Gray” and “Ms. Black“.

Koko Left a Language Legacy

Researchers wondered if Koko would teach a child “gorilla sign language”. Since her only pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, that question will have to remain unanswered.

Although she left behind no offspring, Koko gave us a wealth of knowledge.

Humans and Other Species [Including Gorillas] Have Been Caught In Lies

It Wasn’t Me! One day, Koko tore a sink off the wall. When confronted about the mess, she blamed her kitten. This was not her only lie. She did, however, respond remorsefully when caught in a lie, one time signing, “Bad again, Koko bad again.”

Koko Understood Object Permanence

Object permanence is the understanding that something continues to exist when it’s no longer detectable through the senses [sight, hearing, sound, taste, smell].

Where’s that ball? By the time she was fifteen months old, Koko was searching for lost objects. By the age of two, she was moving covers, furniture, and even using the hands of nearby humans to find or retrieve lost items.

Gorillas Can Construct Language

That’s a lovely ring… One day Koko wanted to see a ring someone was wearing. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a word for it. What’s a gorilla to do? Koko resolved the issue, and was able to see the ring, by combining to other words she did have signs for [finger and bracelet]. This wasn’t just a fluke. Koko created more than one compound word – when the occasion called for it.

Some skeptics have argued that Koko does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing and simply learns to sign because she’ll be rewarded. Dr. Patterson admits that in the beginning she, too, thought Koko was simply doing it to “get stuff,” but the gorilla began stringing words together to describe objects she didn’t know the signs for. A hairbrush, for example, became a “scratch comb”; a mask was an “eye hat”; and a ring was a “finger bracelet.” 

The Week, Talking to Koko the Gorilla

Gorilla’s Can Accumulate Assets

Hmm, that might be an exaggeration… But, we did learn was that Koko was capable of understanding ownership. This was demonstrated by her use of the words mine and yours.

Why Studies of Humans and Other Animals Matter…

Reminding ourselves of how alike humans and other animals are can help put things into perspective. It’s easy, as individuals, societies, and even as a species, to get stuck in our own bubbles and stop seeing the larger picture. Among other things, this can give us the sense that we are isolated or alone.

Humans tend to seek the meaning of life, wonder how they fit into the universe. Feeling connected to or part of something larger, for many, is soothing and offers a sense of purpose. Some fulfil this need through religion and spirituality, others through volunteerism or activism, and many through exploration of the natural world. Just as many astronauts have looked back at the earth and felt humbled and inspired while seeing firsthand the vastness and elegance of the universe, those who work with other species are often struck by the immense diversity, ingenuity, and adaptability they encounter.

Because we’re sometimes blind to that which we are surrounded by and immersed in, studying other species can reveal as much about us as it does about them.