Great Apes Love to Spin Around—Here’s Why

A recent study suggests that apes, like humans, seek out altered mental states

In a recent study, researchers examined 40 videos of great apes spinning on ropes and calculated their average rotational velocity. Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP via Getty Images

Humans—especially kids—love to spin. We roll down hills, twirl around in swivel chairs and ride looping roller coasters for the thrill of seeing the world blur around us. 

“Spinning alters our state of consciousness,” Adriano Lameira, a psychologist at the University of Warwick in England, tells BBC News. “It messes up with our body-mind responsiveness and coordination, which make us feel sick, lightheaded and even elated.” 

Now, new research suggests a penchant for whirling isn’t uniquely human. In a study published last month in Primates, Lameira and his colleague Marcus Perlman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Birmingham in England, write that great apes also seem to enjoy spinning, perhaps as a way of altering their mental states. 

In their study, Perlman and Lameira examined 40 videos containing footage of gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos engaged in 132 bouts of spinning on a rope. From this footage, they collected a handful of statistics about the primates’ antics: For one, the animals spun an average of three bouts, each lasting about five and a half rotations. Orangutans, however, seemed to spin for more revolutions than gorillas.

The apes reached an average rotational velocity of 1.43 revolutions per second, with the fastest sustained rotational speed at 3.3 revolutions per second. The primates’ speeds rivaled those of human spinning experts that the researchers examined—ballet dancers, circus performers, Ukrainian hopak dancers and Sufi whirling dervishes—who often clocked in at two to three revolutions per second.

Between bouts, the apes appeared noticeably dizzy, letting go of the rope, stumbling around and falling to the floor, writes Perlman for the Conversation.

Bonobo spinning

Cat Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Scientific American’s Shayla Love she’s seen plenty of spinning while working with wild chimps and gorillas. 

“It’s one of their favorite kinds of play when they’re young,” she tells the publication. “The big leap is whether or not that is pleasurable… whether that’s something they seek out, whether they understand the connection between the two.”

Altered mental states are not uncommon in the animal kingdom, though scientists don’t know whether animals experience them on purpose. Dogs have been documented licking toads, becoming intoxicated and repeating the behavior. Some birds and mammals become “drunk” after eating fermented fruits. Humans, though, intentionally use mind-altering drugs. The new research provides an “entry point” for learning more about why humans evolved a desire to experience altered states of mind, according to the study.

The scientists write that more research is needed to further understand primate spinning behaviors—for example, whether the activity is more common in certain ages or sexes. Future studies might also probe whether orangutans, an arboreal species, are more adapted to motion sickness, since they completed more spins on average than ground-dwelling gorillas.

Perlman is already planning a larger study examining more primate spinning videos and is collecting evidence of the behavior in other animals, too, per the New York Times’ Rachel Nuwer. 

“Spinning around to make ourselves dizzy is something we usually think of as a distinctly human activity,” Perlman tells the publication. “So, it’s really cool to find that other primates do this, too, and that they seem to do it for the same reason that children do: because it’s fun and exhilarating.”

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