biology zoology blog animals at play

Animals at Play

Which animals do play?

Two lectures in my animal behaviour class were devoted to animal play. But how to define “play” and how to know that animals are at play? Play is an energetically-demanding activity, occupying a considerable percentage of time in many a species’ life and it is not usually leading to food acquisition. While it is generally accepted that a playing animal is more at risk than a non-playing one (after all it makes itself more conspicuous; it can injure itself; it can even get lost), there must be some pay-off, some evolutionary benefit in addition to the simple enjoyment factor associated with play.

Through play young animals practice a variety of moves and skills which in later life are likely to be useful be it in the procurement of food, in encounters with conspecifics during the establishment of a hierarchical order, in defence and escape manoeuvres and in shelter seeking and nest building activities. Baby chimps trying to put one box on top of another, puppy dogs tearing newspaper apart and engaging in wrestling matches, foals merrily galloping and kicking their heels, parrots pecking at shiny bells – all these are examples any one of us can easily recognize as animals at play. Most animal play, researchers, in fact, state that play behaviour in animals is confined to mammals and birds. But I disagree.

Simply because it is more difficult to recognize play in reptiles, amphibians and fishes, does it really follow that these animals are totally without play? A satiated tortoise that pushes its head under a lettuce leaf, lifting it, then retracting its head only to begin the procedure anew, is it not perhaps playing with the lettuce leaf and enjoying the activity? And the firebelly newts in my aquarium: whenever the pump is switched on and they snap at the air bubbles that are in the process of leaving the end of the plastic tube or have their tummies tickled by the rising bubbles – are they not enjoying this play? As soon as a newt is lifted to the surface by one of the bubbles, it rushes down to experience the same lift again and again. Observing that, I was reminded of children sliding down a slide and running back to experience the same again and again.

My best and hitherto unpublished and un-videoed example of animal play in lower vertebrates comes from baby swordtail fish. Youngsters in this live-bearing species, no longer than a centimetre, especially after a good feed and with full tummies, engage in hide and seek play, ambushing, and bouts of boisterous play-fights, which are not in the slightest different from the antics of puppy dogs or even human babies.

Characteristics of this kind of play is that no lasting peck order results from it and that one and the same individual “plays” the role of attacker and attacked, winner and loser. So, while I for one am convinced that some fish, at least when young, do play, I, too, would be hesitant to attribute the term ”play” to insects and their -oops- dis”plays”.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2018.
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