Yawning is one of those weird things that you take for granted but if you had to explain yawning to a child you suddenly realize just how weird it really is.
You do it when you’re tired but also when you’re bored. And they’re also contagious so you’re probably about to yawn as you read this.
But what makes yawns even weirder is just how many animals will do it. You’ve certainly seen plenty of other mammals (like your dog and cat) yawn but what about other species like reptiles?
Do reptiles yawn?
Yes, reptiles can yawn although it’s probably not contagious in the same way that it is for us. Instead yawning is likely a sign of a sleepy reptile, a way to stretch, or a means of communication for specific species. Snakes may also do something that looks like a yawn after they’ve dislocated their jaw.
That’s the short answer but yawning is a lot more complicated than that so let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with yawning reptiles!
Why Does Any Animal Yawn?
We still don’t know for sure why animals yawn and what really makes things confusing is that different species seem to yawn for different reasons. While many animals seem to yawn when they’re tired, others like baboons and even beta fish appear to yawn as a response to a potential threat.
Then there are penguins that yawn as part of a courtship ritual and there are also hundreds of species that seem to yawn as a sort of self-soothing behavior. Then there’s the contagious yawning that’s seen in humans and other species that has also likely caused you to yawn from reading this (maybe a few times).
One of the more popular and compelling arguments for yawning in humans is its function as a brain cooling mechanism where air transfer can help cool the often hot mammal brain. But as the Naked Scientist points out, this explanation probably doesn’t make sense for cold-blooded animals like reptiles who have other methods for regulating their temperature.
Then there’s the argument that yawning helps balance CO2 levels but that’s long been debunked for humans and likely any other species that breathe oxygen as well.
So to say that yawning is complicated would be an understatement.
But here’s what we do know: when we look at yawning in any animal it’s important to consider the specific species since yawning can have so many purposes across so many different types of animals.
The best generalization we can come up with is that tired animals tend to yawn and that likely applies to reptiles too.
Are Yawns “Contagious” For Reptiles?
We’re all familiar with contagious yawns in humans but many other social creatures seem to experience contagious yawns and dogs are one of the most notable examples.
But what about reptiles, do they experience contagious or social yawning?
While we’re not 100% certain, current science and the asocial nature of reptiles suggest that contagious yawning is probably unlikely. However, remember that yawning varies a lot between different species so it’s still possible that some species may experience contagious yawns.
You’ll find thousands of reptile keepers that insist their reptiles yawn in response to their own yawns and that may be possible in the more aware or intelligent reptiles but reptiles with less brainpower (like the little leopard gecko) would have a very hard time picking up social cues like that. That doesn’t mean they can’t yawn, but it probably has nothing to do with your yawns.
But there is one reptile that we can almost certainly say doesn’t experience contagious yawns and that’s the red-foot tortoise. These reptiles were extensively studied by scientists who first trained them to yawn on command (which was quite a process) but more importantly they exposed them to other yawning animals to check their response. The tortoises were first exposed to researchers who yawned in front of them and then videos of other tortoises yawning.
Neither one generated any contagious yawns from the tortoises.
Again, explanations for yawning can be very specifies-specific but it’s also reasonable to assume that what’s true for the tortoise could be true for many other reptiles as well which means it’s unlikely that yawning is contagious for reptiles.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t try! As long as you’re safe, you can yawn near your reptiles all you want to try to trigger a yawn!
So Why Do Reptiles Yawn?
If it’s not contagious, then what’s behind the reptile yawn?
It’s most likely a response to tiredness, as it is for many animals, or simply a way to stretch the jaw. Other scientists suggest that yawning is a response to changing conditions of any type- whether that’s getting sleepy or waking up from rest.
But just as we don’t know for sure why mammals do it, we don’t have a clear understanding of why most reptiles do it.
However, yawning has been seen in snakes as a way of adjusting their jaw before or after dislocating it. When you consider just how impressive the feat of dislocating the jaw really is, it isn’t surprising that snakes could use a little adjustment after pulling it off.
This explanation is even more convincing when you see snakes move the jaw side to side during a yawn as if they’re making a few adjustments. You can see exactly what I mean in this video:
Another explanation for yawning, especially in lizards, is to clear their mouth of any debris from their last meal. Many lizards are known to enjoy some especially slimy meals whether that’s a slug, snail, or an especially thick worm. A post-meal yawn could help lizards break up that slime and start clearing out their mouth.
While this explanation does make sense, it hasn’t been tested and I’m not sure that my leopard gecko would care what kind of slime was in his mouth.
Frequently Asked Questions
While the mystery of the yawn remains for both mammals and reptiles we hopefully answered most of your questions related to yawning reptiles. But here are a few others that I’ve received since writing this.
Do All Reptiles Yawn?
Yes, it seems that all reptiles yawn regardless of size or intelligence. While some suggest that their reptiles yawn in response to their own yawns, this hasn’t been scientifically proven but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Instead, most reptiles seem to yawn as a sign of sleepiness.
Do Snakes Yawn?
Yes, snakes yawn! Not only do snakes seem to yawn when they’re tired or sleepy but they also appear to yawn as a way to adjust or stretch their jaws. This is often seen after a big meal that required snakes to dislocate their jaws and yawning seems to help things get back in place.
Why Do Lizards Yawn?
Lizards yawn for the same reasons as most other reptiles: a response to being sleepy or a way to stretch and loosen up the jaw. Additionally, some have suggested that lizards will yawn more after an especially slimy meal (like a snail or slug) as a method of cleaning out their mouth.
Do Amphibians Yawn?
Yes, amphibians like frogs and salamanders also yawn. It could be related to tiredness or stretching their jaw but some amphibians may yawn when they’re shedding their skin. Others may do something that looks like yawning as a display of power.
Yawning is one of many great remaining mysteries of the animal world.
Not only do we have trouble explaining why reptiles yawn but we have a very hard time figuring out why any animal yawns- including us.
What do you think? Do you think your reptile is a contagious yawner or is there another explanation?