Relaxed open mouth as a playful signal in wild ring-tailed lemurs


  • In memory of Alison Jolly, the researcher who firstly understood the importance of studying lemurs to fully comprehend human evolution.


Play signals are commonly used by animals to communicate their playful motivation and to limit the risk that rough acts are misunderstood by playmates. The relaxed open mouth is the most common facial expression performed during play in many mammals and represents the ritualized version of the movement anticipating a play bite. The signaling nature of this expression has been proven in many haplorrhine species but never demonstrated in strepsirrhines. Our purpose was assessing whether, also in strepsirrhines, the relaxed open mouth has an actual communicative function. We studied wild ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), characterized by highly social habits including intense playful interactions. They largely use playful signals, mostly performed with the black and white tail. The signaling function of the tail (tail play) has been widely demonstrated. We analyzed both tail play and the relaxed open mouth to verify how their distribution is affected by different play variables (e.g., play session symmetry, number of play mates, previous use of the same pattern). Indeed, ring-tailed lemurs use the relaxed open mouth as a communicative signal during play. Relaxed open mouth was more frequent during unbalanced interactions showing the highest asymmetry in the patterns performed by the two players (offensive/neutral). Compared to tail play, relaxed open mouth was more frequent during dyadic than polyadic interactions and, as a highly directional signal, it was more frequently replicated by the play mate. Therefore, the relaxed open mouth needs to be performed face-to-face so that signal detection can be optimized. Similar to previous findings in monkeys and apes, the relaxed open mouth in lemurs seems to be a ritualized signal used to engage and, perhaps, sustain playful interaction. Am. J. Primatol. 76:1074–1083, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.