By Angie Vicars
Ever since camera-equipped smartphones hit the market, the Internet has been inundated with ridiculously cute videos of playful puppies and cantankerous cats engaged in all sorts of physical activity. Running and jumping, sliding and swatting—our pets entertain us as they amuse themselves.
What you may not realize, however, is that many other members of the animal kingdom like to play as well. As it turns out, some spiders, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, and fish also like to frolic. Although their interactions may not be as adorable or entertaining to the masses, the science behind them is significant.
Animal play research has literally grown by leaps and bounds over the past ten years, and much of this is due to the work of Gordon Burghardt. His research at UT spans the disciplines of psychology, ecology, and biology, and he has identified play by several species with reputations to the contrary.
For instance, Burghardt once collaborated on a study that found some immature female comb-footed spiders engage in playful sexual behavior with males. The spiders’ pretend courtships and mock copulation can aid male survival and lead to greater egg production, according to the researchers.
Burghardt wrote about animal play for two decades before he ultimately crafted the definition that many have adopted as the gold standard. When his book The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits was published in 2005, the goal was to “come up with criteria for identifying play where you didn’t know it already existed.”
“We’re now able to find that play isn’t something restricted to mammals or a few birds but can be found throughout the animal kingdom,” Burghardt explained.
Some of his other studies involved cichlid fish that like to play with thermometers in their aquariums, monitor lizards that shake shoes and retrieve soda cans, and Vietnamese mossy frog tadpoles that repeatedly ride bubbles to the top of their tank, just to name a few.
Other researchers in the field have used Burghardt’s expertise as a foundation for their own investigations of cranes, crocodiles, and even wasps.
When he first began studying animal behavior as an undergraduate in the 1960s, Burghardt said, “we liked to think that play was something for higher animals and a sign of intelligence. Now we know that’s probably not the case.”
In fact, he argues that by studying play in other animals, humans can gain a better understanding of themselves. In the opening chapter of The Handbook of the Study of Play, Burghardt writes, “Certainly how a honeybee, octopus, or fish experiences play is going to be alien to us. But that does not mean the behavior should be dismissed as either not play or play unaccompanied by subjective states of the type we can empathize with.”
Burghardt’s interest in animal play stems from an unusual set of circumstances in 1970 involving two black bear cubs found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their mother was believed to be dead and they were too young to survive on their own. “I didn’t know much about bears,” Burghardt admitted, “but I knew about research, and the park needed more research on bears.”
Instead of studying bears in the wild as he had planned, Burghardt and his former wife cared for the cubs in their home for seven weeks and documented their findings.
Since then, regulations and facilities for bears inside and outside the national park have changed drastically, so an in-home study would not be allowed today. However, the Burghardts’ research is posted on the website of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.
He recalled one activity the cubs particularly enjoyed was “to find my wife’s purse and dump it open, then play with all the objects.” They also exhibited a love of water. If someone was taking a shower, the cubs “would immediately show interest, come over to the person…and before long be romping under the water spray.”
Since the cubs preferred to play and relax in dark places, they learned how to climb inside the dryer, the kitchen cabinets, and the clothes hamper. But they would also run and hide in dark places if they were frightened. “They were just amazing in terms of intelligence and their activity and their playfulness in general,” Burghardt said.
Burghardt is currently collaborating with the Wildlife Research Institute and the North American Bear Center on additional bear play research. Cameras have been set up in bear dens, visible at bear.org, that live-stream bears and sometimes even catch cubs playing. “A lot of the bear play research is about the time after the bears come out of their dens, so this is very early in life,” Burghardt explained.
When he considers that animal play research seems to receive more acceptance than contention from scientists these days, Burghardt predicts that studies “are only going to increase” for a growing list of species. So don’t be surprised when videos of romping reptiles start flooding your Facebook feed.