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Monday Reads: The Laughter Edition

These days, it seems like the fossil fuel companies are the only ones having gigglefests.

BP checked off a tidy $9.9 billion tax deduction for its handiwork in the Gulf last year. A company calling itself “Making Money Having Fun LLC” is dumping 80 truckloads of coal ash a day onto Bokoshe, OK—a place where it’s become unusual not to know someone with illnesses like cancer or congestive heart disease. And in their rush to capitalize on the gas drilling boom, industry is exploiting loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act that are large enough to drive leaky fracking wastewater trucks through.

Fortunately, the Internet has stepped in to reassure us that giggles have in fact not been monopolized by climate changing, water polluting, dirty energy enthusiasts. Cookie, a Little Penguin from Cincinnati, has his own set of giggles—which, with a little bit of help, he shares at the end of this video:

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has gleefully explored the topic of laughter in animals. By engaging in “heterospecific hand play” (don’t worry; that just means “tickling”) with lab rats, Panksepp discovered the rodents' own particular version of “ultrasonic vocalization” (aka, “laughter”).

I had the “insight” (perhaps delusion) that our 50 kHz chirping response in playing rats might have some ancestral relationship to human laughter. The morning after, I came to the lab and asked my undergraduate assistant at the time to “come tickle some rats with me.”

(Rats, apparently, are most ticklish at the nape of their neck.) Laughter has also been reported among gorillas, chimpanzees, dogs, and the 1.8 million YouTube viewers who’ve watched Cookie get ‘heterospecific hand played.’

Heterospecific laughter research is not without its own snickering detractors. But Panskepp and others see important unanswered questions, including peering into the unconsciousness (psychology professor Robert Provine: “We don't speak laughter the way we choose words in speech.”) and in uncovering treatments for hilarity’s dark twin: depression.

Cookie is having a good time in the video, but the long-term outlook for penguins isn’t so optimistic. Head over to our new Irreplaceable: Wildlife in a Warming World feature to learn more about their polar brethren, Emperor Penguins.

It may be a world full of grim news out there, but it’s never too late to balance things out with some ultrasonic vocalizations of your own. Here’s a suggestion to start—a light-hearted, easy primer answering what some of you may be wondering: Just what is ‘fracking’?

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