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Play in Animals: A Potpourri of New Comparative Research

Four essays discuss metacommunication, fairness, social competence and dominance

Play in nonhuman animals (animals) is a hot topic and there is much on-going comparative research about why play has evolved and how various animals engage in this vital activity (please see, for example, "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?" and "Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun: Birds, Fish, and Reptiles Too" and links therein). Numerous essays about animal play, many written for a broad audience, can be found here and here.

Here, I want to alert you to four new research essays that have just been published in the journal Behaviour. I've included their abstracts, and contact information for the authors from whom you can receive reprints are included with each link.

The first paper is called "Metacommunication in social play: the meaning of aggression-like elements is modified by play face in Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus entellus)" by Marek Špinka, Marie Palečková, and Milada Řeháková. The abstract for this essay reads: The metacommunication hypothesis asserts that some elements of play behaviour are associated with play elements borrowed from aggression and interpret these aggression-like elements as playful. Using data from free living Hanuman langurs ( Semnopithecus entellus), we tested three predictions that follow from the metacommunication hypothesis: (i) aggression-like elements (ALEs) abbreviate play bouts; (ii) candidate signal elements are sequentially associated with ALEs; (iii) associations of candidate signal elements with ALEs prolong play bouts. Play face and five other candidate signal elements were evaluated in relation to nine ALEs. We confirmed all three predictions for play face, albeit only if the play face and/or the ALEs occurred at the start of the play bout. The other candidate elements were not associated with ALEs. We conclude that play face fulfils the metacommunicatory function in Hanuman langur play bouts, while other play specific elements may serve other signal or non-signal functions.

In a nutshell, these researchers conclude that similar to play bows, the play face helps to change the meaning of other actions that could be misinterpreted in the context of play. For more on Gregory Bateson's ideas about metacommunication, often called communication about communication, please see "The Development of Social Interaction, Play, and Metacommunication in Mammals: An Ethological Perspective."

The next essay, by Elisabetta Palagi, Giada Cordoni, Elisa Demuru, and myself, is called "Fair play and its connection with social tolerance, reciprocity and the ethology of peace." The abstract reads: The concept of peace, with its corollary of behaviours, strategies and social implications, is commonly believed as a uniquely human feature. Through a comparative approach, we show how social play in animals may have paved the way for the emergence of peace. By playing fairly, human and nonhuman animals learn to manage their social dynamics in a more relaxed and tolerant way that results in a more effective management of conflicts. We show that play promotes tolerance, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity, which are essential elements of the so-called positive peace. This kind of peace is reached through an evolving process in which individuals continually modify social relationships to attain peaceful coexistence. In conclusion, we assume that the concept of peace has deep biological roots that constitute the basis for more sophisticated cultural constructions.

This essay follows up on much research on how and why many different species are able to negotiate play on the run, and maintain the "rules of the game" (please see, for example, "Moral in Tooth and Claw").

The third essay is called "Play, variation in play and the development of socially competent rats" by Stephanie Himmler, Brett Himmler, Vivien Pellis, and Sergio Pellis. The abstract reads: Studies on laboratory rats (Rattus norvegicus) have revealed that experience with social play in the juvenile period is important for the development of improved social skills, an improvement that appears to be mediated by the prefrontal cortex. But there is much variation in both the frequency with which play occurs and in the complexity of the actions performed among different strains of rats. Is all this variation adaptive in serving play’s critical developmental role? The integrative approach advocated by Tinbergen provides a framework with which to assess such variation. A review of what is known and the inclusion of some novel data suggest that irrespective of the form of the play, rats of all strains converge on the same key experiences, experiences that have been implicated in the development of social skills. The lessons learnt from rats may serve as a guide for broader cross-species comparisons.

This essay shows that play is extremely important in the development of social skills and social competence, and supports what many other researchers have discovered for other species.

The last essay, by Giada Cordoni and Elisabetta Palagi, is called "Aggression and hierarchical steepness inhibit social play in adult wolves." The abstract reads: In canids, play dynamics seem to be more affected by dominance hierarchy rather than cooperative social bonds. To test this hypothesis we studied a colony of grey wolves ( Canis lupus lupus). We quantified the dynamics of aggression and hierarchical changes in two periods (Sample 1 and Sample 2). Sample 2 was characterized by higher level of aggressiveness and by a more strict and steep linear hierarchy. The negative correlation between rank distance and play frequency characterizing both periods and the higher play asymmetry in Sample 2 suggest that rank rules dictate play rules thus highlighting the competitive side of wolf play behaviour. The overall affiliation rates showed no variation between the two samples. Yet, play performance was modified. In Sample 2, wolves reduced playful activity, limited the number of players per session and avoided playing during high competition contexts. Our findings support the hypothesis that wolf play is modulated by dominance relationships more than by cooperative social bonds.

In essence, these researchers show that it is essential to factor in dominance relationships among play partners to understand the dynamics of their playful interactions.

Please stay tuned for more forthcoming comparative research on various aspects of play in animals. This is an extremely exciting field of research, with findings that have significant and broad implications that cross species lines and include human beings as well (please see, for example, "The Need for 'Wild' Play: Let Children Be the Animals They Need to Be" and essays by Psychology Today writer Peter Gray).

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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