When primates pull faces they tell you a lot more than words alone could, say Anup Shah, Fiona Rogers and Dr Ben Garrod.
Here’s what primates are saying when they pull faces
Whether it’s a slightly raised flirty eyebrow, an annoyed narrowing of the eyes, a furrowed brow or angrily bared teeth, we are a social species heavily reliant on nonverbal communication. But while body language is hugely important, it is our faces that paint the fullest picture. With a large number of muscles, our faces can convey both extreme and subtle facial expressions, depending what we want to say. Group living is not easy, so it’s crucial that as an individual you’re able to keep others happy or show them you’re not to be messed with (depending on your status, of course).
Although no other primates can match our array of facial expressions, many display a wide range of emotions using their faces – especially their mouths, ears and eyes. This is one reason why great apes and monkeys are endlessly rewarding animals to watch. Yet we have an often-subconscious tendency to attribute human behaviour to animals without any scientific support. Anthropomorphism, as it is known, causes countless problems in behavioural studies, and undermines our broader understanding of animals. So we have to be careful not to see things that aren’t strictly there.
To understand what’s going in the mind of an orangutan or langur, it also helps to remember that each expression is like a mosaic of jigsaw pieces. You have to look at them all together to get the complete picture. With practice, however, you’ll start picking up the basics of what our relatives are trying to say.