Tuesday, May 17, 2011

So you think you know why animals play...

For this post I need to redirect you to Scientific American's guest blogs.

Don't worry, it's no more scientific than usual (hope they don't mind!).



  1. Linda, A great article in Scientific American, congratulations. One thing I kept thinking as I read the article about young animals playing. Maybe the animals that play more are merely genetically superior to their congeners. They are more successful in life because they are stronger, not because they benefited from that play. What do you think?

  2. WONDERFUL article!!!!
    John, does enjoying play and playing a lot mean being stronger or being successful at playing? One can LOVE participating in play yet be a poor athlete.

  3. Excellent article--if only more animal behavior people could write so well and accessibly! And very interesting research. My own, back when I was still conducting experiments and had access to the literature, had to do with mate choice and same-sex behaviors--another one of those areas where people are always asking "Why do they DO that?" (Well, some people ask more than others.) Fascinating to read about the current work and your very intriguing negative results!

  4. missing teeth severely impair one’s breeding potential

    unless you are a socalled coloured on the Cape Flats. Two to four front teeth NOT missing, would severely impair there.

  5. Janet, Your question underscores my question. Does enjoying play, or not enjoying play influence success in life? How does genetic fitness influence the enjoyment in play behaviors in the first place? I'm glad I'm not a researcher who has to look at the endless variables at work in biology.

  6. Just found this through SA, and i must say it was very enlightening. Never realised how much was unknown about animal play (i'm sure my behaviour lecturer told us that play taught life skills), and i've now added it to my growing list of things to do research on after graduation.

    One thing i would like to clarify though. Where you say that play is costly; is there research to back this up? Or is it just another assumption that seems to make sense?

  7. John,
    You're perfectly right; it's extremely difficult to figure out what's actually CAUSED by play, even when play IS correlated with survival or some other long-term benefit. In a way, getting negative results (like those I got with the meerkats) is more useful, because at least I can be sure that meerkats DON'T use play for those particular purposes. If I'd found a relationship between play and, say, fighting success, I'd only have been able to say 'well, they MAY use play to learn to fight'.
    But we do know that playfulness is genetically controlled and subject to natural selection, because researchers have been able to selectively breed a strain of highly playful house mice, even though normal house mice virtually never play.

    Your comment reminds me of all those nerdy (non-athletic) kids who love playing computer games. I wonder if it helps their survival?

    There are so many things out there to ask questions about, and about a trillion 'just-so-stories' that we accept, unquestioned, simply because they sound kind of reasonable.
    Regarding the literature (a pet grievance): it annoys me that everyone is always saying how important it is to make scientific findings accessible to the public when they're not even accessible to the majority of scientists!

    Elephant's Eye,
    Obviously I've been looking for love in all the wrong places.

    The costliness of play was taken for granted until the 1980s, and then everyone rushed out to document it. They found that young mammals spend only about 3-8% of their time playing, which translates into only a small percentage of their daily energy budget (e.g. 2-3% in rats, 2% in pronghorns, 4-9% in cats, 1% in white-tailed deer). But this info didn't really help, because who can say what's a trivial energy cost and what isn't? The pronghorn study showed that if playing fawns had channelled the energy they spent on frolicking into growth, they'd have ended up 7% larger at weaning.

    There is also the whole issue of survival costs (which are very hard to measure), but play really is quite risky for some species. A field study of South American fur seals found that although pups spend only 6% of their time playing, 85% of the 26 pups that the researcher saw predated (by sea lions), were playing at the time they were captured!

  8. Dear Ms. Sharpe,

    Were you to enroll a cohort of meerkats as King's Scholars, or "tugs," at Eton, and simply let Nature take her course, you should quickly obtain enough empirically valid information to keep you in grants and honoraria 'til the cows come home.

    While it is no doubt true that few, if any, sea lions or other large predators regularly visit Etonian sporting venues such as Agar's Plough, Sixpenny, or "Mespots," the healthy competitive spirit that has for many centuries prevailed at Eton provides challenges sufficiently robust for testing the mettle, both moral and physical, of any juvenile meerkat.

    Among cosseted, effete, jungle-prowling, river-forging, cobra-fleeing, grass-hut-dwelling eggheads such as yourself, Ms. Sharpe, there is a tendency to view the "wilderness" as the setting unrivaled for observing natural selection's most vivid and authentic self-assertion.

    But a Michaelmas or Lent Half spent at Eton would reveal Darwinian principles with such violent clarity as to make your puff-adder-infested Kalahari seem as tame and gentle as Sheriff Scotty's Playland Park.

    I am equally disappointed that your definition of "play" is so dispiritingly puritanical and simple-minded as to exclude pastimes as common and rewarding as Texas Hold 'Em and Whist.

    Perhaps you view your meerkats and other animal subjects as so lacking in agency, not to mention wit, as to be indifferent to the great many pleasures offered by card games and other forms of gambling.

    This is unfortunate as I have a cat, whom I've named Dr. Kittenberg, who unselfconsciously enjoys watching televised poker tournaments and would almost certainly drive us both straight to the poorhouse were I to let her spend as much money on online blackjack as she wished.

    But since I'm neither an academic nor a safari enthusiast, you'll no doubt dismiss my stories about Dr. Kittenberg as merely "anecdotal."

    I nonetheless wish you luck and success in your endeavors.



  9. Hugo,
    Sorry, your entertaining comment mysteriously disappeared into my Spam box (I didn't know I HAD a Spam box!).

    I would not dream of submitting my mongooses to the rigours of the English public school system, regardless of how informative this may be. They're civilised creatures! I can think of no better example of this than their overt disdain for card games.
    I'm also deeply distressed by your cat's unfortunate gambling addiction (anecdotal or otherwise) and would suggest you immediately provide her with distractions that stimulate more atavistic pleasures (e.g. a pet hamster or cowered Etonian school boy).

  10. OMG, you guys rock!
    I anyhow missed this delicious dialogue before, have laughed my head off just now.
    There was a pup named "Hugo" in the Elveera group. Did you name it, Lynda? LOL
    Sorry for being that quiet, but there are some people outside who think they would have to spy on my comments, they better should get a life.
    I don't miss a single post of you and my admiration grows with every new one.
    Sad day for your little Chiromantis Xerampelina, though. RIP Sweetie.
    Couldn’t you rescue her?!
    Love and hugs

  11. Jeanette,
    Thank you for your support and encouragement.
    I didn't name Hugo. Actually I don't name study animals after people because it seems to guarantee they'll meet a particularly unpleasant end (the animal not the person). The one exception was Brock (who I named after Tim Clutton-Brock because she was born on his birthday), who - to my embarrassment - went on to become dominant female of Lazuli!

    I couldn't rescue my unfortunate frog because this snake kills with venom and she'd already been bitten; she would have died anyway.

  12. Dear Lynda,
    so you named Brock, Ziziphus' successor, that's awesome. Great excitement here!
    Oh yes, I know about the science of pup naming, it's still an utterly difficult procedure considering the prevention of these unpleasent ends.
    I was supposed to name a meerkat pup this year as well, and against all odds I named it after a (still alive) human. So please keep your fingers crossed my only son will make it at least to adulthood ;-)
    More hugs,

  13. Jeanette,
    My fingers are crossed. And if your pup doesn't make it, lie when his namesake asks how he's doing!


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