Researchers from the University of Portsmouth say that chimpanzees' communication is more similar to humans than was previously known as they are able to produce these smile types silently without being constrained by the accompanying laughing sound.
Marina Davila-Ross, from the university's Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, said the research suggests that this showed the evolution of this type of expression from ape to human.
"Humans have the flexibility to show their smile with and without talking or laughing," she said.
"This ability to flexibly use our facial expressions allows us to communicate in more explicit and versatile ways, but until now we didn't know chimps could also flexibly produce facial expressions free from their vocalisations."
The researchers filmed 46 chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia and used ChimpFACS - a facial action coding system designed for chimpanzees - to measure their facial movements.
The study investigated specific types of smiles that accompany laugh sounds and found that these smile types have the same evolutionary origin as human smiles when they are laughing.
It suggests that these smile types of humans must have evolved from positive expressions of ancestral apes.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, further suggests that flexibility in facial expressions was already present in ancestral apes and emerged long before humans evolved.
Dr. Davila-Ross said there were still key differences between humans and our ape ancestors.
"Chimps only rarely display crow's feet when laughing, but this trait is often shown by laughing humans," she said.
"Then, it is called Duchenne laughter, which has a particularly positive impact on human listeners."
A number of recent studies of chimpanzees have shown their similarity to humans in a number of areas, such as the brainpower needed to cook and a fondness for alcohol.
The findings come as animal rights groups in the Americas try to persuade courts to treat creatures with complex cognitive abilities as legal persons who should not be in captivity. - AP