Animals at play

All animals, even the giants, start off small but the childhood experience varies hugely.   A shrew springs to adulthood in a month, while an elephant is in for a ten year marathon.

For a chimpanzee, growing up is also a long and social business. As well as food and transport, mother provides another service just as crucial to her young’s survival.

Ape school is one-on-one tuition and the pupils watch closely as mother applies her skills to cracking a difficult problem. But it’s not all work, chimps like many other animals take time out to have fun.

Though dozens of explanations have been suggested, playing remains one of nature’s mysteries. The rules though, are simple enough. First, signal your friendly intentions. Rule number two is go gentle, don’t follow through with the bite and let go if it hurts. And finally, it’s not about winning, it’s joining in that counts.

If there’s a serious purpose to play, perhaps it’s preparation for future trials of strength. Predators like lions purposefully hone their skills of stalking, tracing and tripping. The cubs’ game is a mirror of the hunter adults.

For intelligent, social animals like monkeys and apes, play could be a way of learning how to fit into a group. Japanese macaques rub shoulders with the same gang for up to thirty years.  But the truth is, no one really knows what if anything, play is really for.

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