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Although animal play is hard to identify because of its subjective nature, scientists have observed play behaviors in many species, including insects.
Source: BBC News/YouTube
The criteria that researchers use to identify play are whether the behavior is purposeless, if it occurs without external rewards, if it differs from more needs-based behaviors, if it happens repeatedly, and if the player (or players) is relaxed when it takes place. Another clue that signals animals are at play is that humans and animals use the same part of their brains when engaging in these behaviors.
“Play has a lot of peculiar and fascinating properties,” said cognitive scientist Laura Schulz, according to Inverse. “It’s totally fundamental to learning and human intelligence.”
Most people are probably aware of dogs’ penchant for play, along with their “play bow” which sends a clear message to others about their intentions, but many other animals engage in these complex and joyful activities. For example, otters have been known to juggle rocks, rats wrestle and play hide and seek, monkeys repeatedly “dive-bomb” into water for hours, and bumblebees enjoy rolling balls around.
Play helps prepare individuals to deal with life’s challenges, tests boundaries, helps regulate emotions, and improves problem-solving skills, innovation, cooperation, and impulse control. Studies have even shown that rats who grow up without playmates have prefrontal cortexes that aren’t as developed as those with playmates. In addition, play helps release dopamine into an animal’s brain, the rush of which is rewarding.
A UCLA study also discovered that at least 65 species laugh or make vocalizations that imply laughter. Rats were even found to giggle in ultrasonic vocalizations when tickled.
“When we laugh, we are often providing information to others that we are having fun and also inviting others to join,” said Sasha Winkler, one of the researchers, according to Upworthy. “Some scholars have suggested that this kind of vocal behavior is shared across many animals who play, and as such, laughter is our human version of an evolutionarily old vocal play signal.”
Another study discovered that birds who engage in play have a larger relative brain mass and live longer than birds who don’t play. Birds who didn’t play at all had the smallest brain size, birds who played by themselves had slightly larger brains, birds who played with objects had larger brains, and birds who played with others had the largest relative brain size. Interestingly, brain mass was not found to be associated with tool use.
People often like to equate animals with automatons whose sole purpose is to survive and mate, but these assumptions are consistently contradicted by studies and those who pay attention to them. Animals are complex creatures who laugh and enjoy playing games simply because they’re fun. Instead of letting our egos feel hurt that we share these similarities with our animal brethren, maybe we can celebrate that they can also experience the joys of life.
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