Goosebumps. From the moment the aircraft wheels touch down on African soil and your first safari is about to begin or your long-awaited return to Londolozi has finally arrived, all of the excitement and anticipation has given you goosebumps.
After your first game drive you are now fully immersed in your safari experience and you, along with your guide and tracker team, have been building up to the moment you will track down a pride and/or coalition of lions (or better yet all of them together). Yet nothing can quite prepare you for that moment when you hear one of the most iconic sounds of the African bush as a male lion gives off his formidable roar just a few meters away from you and it sends shivers down your spine.
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I can still clearly recall the first time I heard a male lion roar – pinned to my seat, my breath was taken away, yet I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and the goosebumps tingling down my arms. Although I can now breathe just a little better when a male lion calls out to claim his territory, contact his coalition of brothers or walks right passed our vehicle, I often get goosebumps just from watching my guests go through the same shivering sensation.
Taking in everyone’s reactions, I have wondered why it is that we humans get goosebumps and whether the rest of the animal kingdom experiences the same sensation.
What exactly are goosebumps?
Other than the self-explanatory name coming from them resembling the texture of goose’s skin, goosebumps are a result of tiny muscles (arrector pili muscles) in the skin contracting, literally making your hair follicles rise up when you experience a strong emotional feeling, such as extreme fear, sadness, joy, and sexual arousal or as a result of cold weather.
Goosebumps are an involuntary reaction – nerves from the sympathetic nervous system, in other words, the nerves that control the fight or flight response cause these tiny muscles to contract. So adrenaline has a large influence on goosebumps.
Do Animals Get Goosebumps?
Many animals that we see on the game drive here also experience what could be categorized as goosebumps, including porcupines, leopards and impala just to name a few. In these cases, goosebumps are a bodily response to situations where it’s advantageous to appear larger and stronger, such as during a confrontation or courtship.
Remembering our once hairy ancestors and linking it to many of the feathered and furry creatures we see here, goosebumps in humans evolved as a defence mechanism. Goosebumps and hair-raising moments started off as a response to the cold as raised hair would trap an insulating layer of air around the body. Subsequently, our fluffed-up ancestors would appear bigger than they actually were and would stand a better chance of fending off any would-be attackers. This also explains why fear is associated with cold.
Although goosebumps may not serve many purposes to humans nowadays in terms of a threatening display, it is evident in the wildlife around us on cold wintery mornings or when a threatened animal has a similar reaction to fear or intimidation, causing its fur to be puffed out and making itself appear bigger or more dangerous.
This works not only for prey in an attempt to make predators back off but also for intra-specific competition during dominance displays between males and to impress the female counterparts with their genetic superiority. Referred to as piloerection rather than goosebumps in animals, the reaction is still initially triggered in the same way it is in humans, but there is also some voluntary actions involved too when performing certain displays.
While it might be a bit tricky to work out exactly what might send that shivering sensation down the spine of a fearless lion, in the meanwhile, maybe you can think of the last moment that gave you that goosebumps feeling on a recent safari?