Wild Connections

What blue-footed boobies and other animals tell us about human relationships

What's in a Kiss?

When we lock lips with a partner, there's more to it than just romance.

Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock
Kisses are nearly universal, whether given as a greeting, a sign of affection, or a tentative indicator of the first stirrings of attraction.

In many cultures, a kiss on the cheek is a common way of saying hello or goodbye. Despite my European upbringing, I have always been a little wary of kissing strangers, even if it's just a light peck—there is that uncomfortable moment when you may not be so keen to engage in the ritual but risk offending a new acquaintance.

Maybe for me, kissing, in whatever form, is more personal and intimate—a gesture reserved for "special" occasions. At the same time, one can think of many more unpleasant ways to say hello—for a cat or a dog, a sniff of the bum or a whiff of each other's breath may be the preferred way to go. I suppose, then, that an air kiss to each cheek (the face, not the butt) isn't so bad after all.

It’s all about perspective. 

The Value of First Kisses, Friendly or Not

Why do so many animals kiss? For the many species who greet one another with a kiss or a sniff, it's about exchanging a wealth of information—who they are, how healthy they are, what their hormone levels are, where they have been, and what they have eaten. Such can be the power of even the simplest kisses. Take prairie dogs. They are known for their “greet-kiss,” which goes a little like this: Two prairie dogs approach, they lock teeth, swap some saliva, and then, inevitably, one of two things happens—they fight or they go about their business. Do they fight because one is a poor kisser? More likely, it's because they don’t belong to the same social group.

Among we humans, nothing is as momentous as that first kiss when it comes to arousal, romance, and love. It usually does not lead to a fight, but it can rock your world or shatter your dreams. And, oh, how nerve-racking it can be.

What's so important about the first kiss? There is evidence to suggest that, via touch, taste, and smell, it aids us in assessing the long-term potential of a mate. Through the saliva, scientists speculate, kisses help us acquire a range of information about a potential mate, including hormone levels, health, and genetic compatibility. (We're more like prairie dogs than you thought.) We also learn about basic compatibility based on how well we kiss together. And once you kiss, a suite of chemical reactions in the brain and body are activated. Sparks really can fly.

We aren’t the only species to kiss for "love," but others have developed different approaches. Cardiocondyla elegans, a species of ant, has a decidedly special kiss. Unlike humans and bonobos, which share share our passion for tongue kissing, C. elegans plays antennae hockey to get in the mood. We don’t have antennae, of course, but not all human cultures, past or present, embrace mouth-to-mouth contact as a sign of affection. In ancient Egyptian and several cultures still vibrant today today, such as some Inuit societies, sniffing each other’s breath, licking around the face, or simply rubbing faces is still the way to go.

Regardless of what form your kiss takes, it’s thought that once a partner has been selected and you are in a relationship, kissing serves to maintain and strengthen the bond between you. So go ahead—kiss fervently with your mouth, sniff each other intensely, or rub noses with abandon. However you go about it, not only will you learn a lot about a mate, it will be sure to get your motor revving.

 

For Additional Reading

  • Mercier, J. L., Lenoir, J. C., Eberhardt, A., Frohschammer, S., Williams, C., & Heinze, J. (2007). Hammering, mauling, and kissing: stereotyped courtship behavior in Cardiocondyla ants. Insectes sociaux, 54(4), 403-411.
  • Wlodarski, R., & Dunbar, R. I. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of sexual behavior, 42(8), 1415-1423.

Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D. is an animal behavior expert currently studying lemur personality and social networks at Duke University.

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