Animals at Play

Ep 1/2

Sunday 28 July



Across the natural world, young animals spend much of their time playing. From cats that love a game of chase, to chimps that can solve puzzles, new research now reveals that play is at the heart of almost everything an animal learns - it’s so much more than fun and games.

But play isn’t practiced by just a few obvious species. Scientist are discovering that it’s more widespread than previously thought.

The Komodo Dragon is the largest lizard on earth, and Professor Gordon Burghardt has been studying them in captivity for 20 years. Using objects like paper bags and buckets, he’s observed that they like playing and balancing things on their heads. He thinks it might replicate their feeding behaviour - burying their heads deep inside a carcass to get food. It’s one of the first examples of play behaviour ever recorded in a reptile.

In the jungles of Thailand, clouded leopard cubs chase, climb and play fight. And they play these same games repeatedly. Why? It’s about the release of dopamine and endorphins, the body’s reward chemicals. They give the animals a feel-good factor, which makes these games addictive. The more they play, the more they hone their skills and eventually these cubs will become formidable tree-based hunters.

In Thailand, Gibbons hurl themselves through the canopy. But 15 metres up, one slip could be fatal. So, juveniles are thought to allow themselves to fall by momentarily letting go of the branches. It’s a risky tactic but one that teaches them how to react if they fall for real.

Marlice Van Vuuren has been looking after orphaned cheetahs for over 30 years and she uses ‘object play’ to train them for their return to the wild. A game of ball is perfect for helping them learn how to chase down objects that move in unpredictable ways, like their prey. To sharpen their decision-making skills, Marlice uses an industrial sized game of cat and mouse.

The power of play isn’t just for the young. Macaques in Japan play one unusual game into old age. It’s called 'stone handling'. Professor Michael Huffman was the first to record it. He thinks that for the young macaques it’s all about developing critical motor skills, but for the older macaques, stone handling helps prevent the onset of forgetfulness and the loss of mental agility. It’s possible that playing with stones is actually slowing down the ageing process.