Shifting Baselines

Last year Jeremy Jackson went to South Africa to collect a big prize at a conference. While there he met a young nature writer/photographer named Adam Welz. A few weeks ago Adam was ambling down the west coast of the U.S. and stopped by to visit for a day. In addition to breaking the news to me that more than half the plants in my yard are introduced species from South Africa (where the climate is so similar), he also is a great storyteller and amazing nature photographer (see the beavers).

If you have a few minutes and care to read some excellent natural history writing and see some amazing photograhic work, take a look at his blog. And maybe give him your insights on his question about the adaptive significance of yawning.



  1. #1 Pete Nelson
    June 4, 2008

    I did some postdoc work on chimp facial expressions a while back. One of the experiments I wanted to do was to see if chimps could distinguish between images (no sound) of a ‘scream face’ and a yawn. (Prior research has shown that chimps can distinguish between images of various facial expressions w known significance.) The two look indistinguishable to me, though of course the yawn lacks the acoustic signal that accompanies the scream! We had plenty of ‘scream face’ images but had a terrible time getting good, frontal photos of yawns for our match-to-sample experiments. I’m not sure this would set anyone on the path to an illustrious academic career (it’s certainly an example of what the Aussie’s would call ‘blue sky research’), but I’d love to see someone do the experiment. It’d also be interesting to quantify the temporal distribution of yawns in a social setting–once someone yawns, others start doing the same. Or look at the social hierarchy of yawners. I don’t know what the adaptive significance (if any) of yawning is, though it’s likely indicative of an individual’s motivational state. Social yawning may be adaptive in that it gets all members of a social group on a similar motivational state (like dawn choruses in birds, monkeys and dolphins?). Plenty to keep you busy there!

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