I know how in the modern world we can be slaves to convenience, but with time being of the essence in so many facets of our existence these days, the convenience route is often a necessity. It goes without saying that the digital age has forever changed the face of modern society, and information about almost anything is literally a click of a button away.
Now, you obviously have to be careful about exactly what sources you are referencing on the internet, and a friend of mine is far more in favour of the old school approach of looking it up in a book or getting hold of a proper authority on a subject (we can go into the pros and cons of “Googling” another time), yet when you need or want to know something now, a quick typing in of your subject can yield results in milliseconds.

Personally I’m all for Googling, as my mind is quite scattered; random thoughts pop in and out all the time, and with an innate curiosity combined with a slight impatience, I like to have an answer sooner rather than later, because if I don’t, I’ll probably forget what it was I was curious about in the first place. This has led to the researching of the most arbitrary things one can think of, some of which will never enter my head again. Sometimes, however, little gems get uncovered when they are least expected.

This morning fell somewhere in the middle, between the random and the gem ends of the spectrum. We were researching the phenomenon of being ticklish and the physiology behind it.

Whilst not tickling per se, grooming in lions can play a similar role when the cubs are small to the tickling of a baby by a mother in humans.

Basically, tickling sensations can be split into two categories. Knismesis is a mildly annoying sensation caused by a light movement on the skin, like when an insect is crawling on you, while gargalesis covers the more laugh-inducing ticklish sensations.

Skipping over the anatomy lessons and technical terms, the bit we found really interesting was how it was theorised that being ticklish has evolved as a self-protection mechanism. And this isn’t just protection from your older sibling who might hold you down and torture you for a bit, but more in a real-world, save-your-life scenario. That sounds a bit overdramatic where tickling is concerned, but if one considers the areas of the human body that are often the most ticklish (soles of feet, neck, armpit), one usually finds a vital organ or body part there that needs protection. We need feet to run from danger. The neck has the jugular vein and carotid artery, while the axillary artery is found in the armpit. The damaging of any of these for primitive man (and modern man in the case of the blood vessels) could potentially be life-threatening, and being ticklish is therefore theorised to be a way to anticipate a potential threat or pain; the body reacts – sometimes violently – to the stimulus, and at the same time, we laugh. This laughter seems particularly contradictory, as being tickled is often unpleasant, but the theory goes that the laughter is a submissive noise, designed to lessen the threat of an attack on the vulnerable areas.

This is also why you cannot tickle yourself; your brain knows what is coming and doesn’t allow your body to react in the same way.

Play fighting in big cats, as well as reinforcing the mother-offspring bond, teaches them invaluable skills for later life. Here the Mashaba female spars with the Mashaba young female.

This is all fascinating, but where does it fit in in the context of the bush?

The most important connection between human ticklishness and that of other mammals is the parent-infant response. In the period of a baby’s life when it is what is known as preverbal (not yet possessing the ability to speak), tickling – or at least some kind of light physical touch – plays a large role in establishing that bond between a parent and its offspring. And this is not exclusive to humans by any means. Watch how tactile an elephant cow is with its newborn calf. Lions groom their cubs daily. Given that the audio communication of other mammals is in no way as advanced as that of humans, it stands to reason that the bonding through touch in the early stages of an infant’s life is the way in which mothers and offspring bond, whereas in humans it serves more as a front-runner to further bonding later on when the infant learns to speak.

Play-fighting as a cub can help prepare a male lion for a potential fight to the death when he is older.

The play-fighting that the big cats in particular exhibit, while usually being described as a hunting and stalking practice, most likely also plays a vital role in teaching the individuals to protect their vulnerable areas. Whilst it might not be tickling itself, it is still an interaction between two conspecifics that plays a role in better equipping them for survival in later life.

Interestingly enough though – and here we need to refer back to those areas that most of us find ticklish – Natalie Wolchover of LiveScience has this to say:

The gargalesis response is thought to have evolved in great apes as a means of social bonding, engendering light-hearted interactions between parents and children. Some experts believe gargalesis also helps youngsters hone their self-defense skills; during tickle fights with peers, kids develop reflexes to protect sensitive or vulnerable areas such as the neck and ribs.

So if we really want to simplify all this, it seems that us and the great apes use tickling as a survival tool. Or maybe that’s just me romanticizing the whole thing.

Whether all this is in any way relevant to your next game drive or not, I’m still not sure. I guess I was just fascinated by how such an innocent act as tickling someone has its roots buried deep in an individual’s survival.

What other seemingly innocuous actions and interactions between both people and animals are taking place on a daily basis that we overlook? Give it some thought. Then Google it.


Filed under General Nature

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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on Tickling For Survival

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Ange Wallace

The science geek in me LOVES this blog!!! Thanks, James! I did not know about the evolutionary importance of a simple tickle. Fascinating.

As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I constantly recommend the deeper touch (massage, joint compression) to settle youngsters, and ward against the alerting results of lighter touch (tickles). This gives me a whole new perspective and teaching frame. Another added bonus of safari. Who knew?! 🙂


Interesting read James and thanks for the explanations on this topic. I agree with you on the searching techniques – want to know something – Google it, quick as a wink.

MJ Bradley

I learned something new!! I never thought of tickling in quite that way before.. Thank you!

Gawie Jordaan

you got to be tickling me!! Brilliant James!

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