Animals Having Fun

Thanks to Eric Vance for a fun and interesting read:

Where the Wild Things Play

The animal world is full of games. And tucked in among wrestling monkeys, belligerent birds and wily coyotes are lessons for us all.

As a sophomore in college I interned at a lab that studied dolphin behavior. The animals spent most of the year doing back flips and spraying water onto tourists at a theme park, then called Marine World Africa USA, just north of San Francisco. In their off months, they hung out with behavioral scientists who did experiments with them.

I quickly noticed a few things about dolphin research. One, it’s regularly interrupted by dolphin sex. Dolphins are dirty, dirty creatures. Two, despite this, it’s actually quite dull. Watching dolphins swim in circles eight hours a day gets old. And three, almost all dolphin experiments involve games and toys.

Language, consciousness, communication — all of them are easier to study if the animal thinks it’s playing a game. I remember the lead researcher telling me, “It has to be fun or they just won’t participate. You cannot force a dolphin to do anything.” But you can always get them to play.

Once, a film crew came by to capture the dolphins playing, and they obliged with a game where they shot targeted streams of water out of their pools. The filmmaker’s delight turned to horror when he realized they were aiming at his expensive camera setup.

Eventually I co-wrote a paper about the odd bubble rings they blow and play with. Their idle amusement turns out to reveal an almost artistic ability to evaluate the toys they create.

Dolphins are not the only animals that like to play (though they may be the cleverest). The animal kingdom is full of frolicking, frisking, gamboling and romping critters. And while it’s YouTube gold, it also tells us a lot about what’s going on in their heads. And it may help parents better understand how their kids play.

All sorts of animals play for all sorts of reasons. A fawn frolics in the meadow to become more agile. A kitten chases string so that one day it can chase a mouse. An octopus plays with a plastic bottle or Legos to entertain itself…

Read the whole article here.

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