The purpose of play

Sabi Sand | September 2018

I have little doubt that something which brings great pleasure to almost everybody fortunate enough to experience it, is watching young animals at play. It is a sure way to bring a smile to the face of even the most serious person, and tends to lift the mood and brighten the day for everybody. It certainly is cute and endearing behaviour, but of course the young animals at play are not doing it for our benefit or
amusement, they are doing it to benefit themselves.

So how is play beneficial to the participants? One could simply say that play is essential to survival. I would need to elaborate on that rather sweeping statement. I certainly do believe that purposeful play does prepare young animals to cope better in situations where their lives depend on good co-ordination and high skill levels.

Perhaps it makes most sense to consider a few examples of animals at play: We have been fortunate enough recently to have had some wonderful sightings of lion cubs. One of the lionesses of the Mhangene pride has four cubs, which at the time of writing this article are a little more than three months old. Over the past couple of weeks, she has shared some kills with them, so although they still receive plenty of mother’s milk, they have been introduced to flesh as part of their diet. When it has been cool enough, we have witnessed some wonderful playful behaviour exhibited by these cubs. They stalk, they hide, they ambush, they pounce and they wrestle with each other. They bite and chew one another, and they pounce on mother’s swishing tail while she is at rest.

All these antics are geared towards developing and improving the skills they will need later on in life – the skills that are essential in being able to hunt and provide for themselves. Bonds are forged in these early formative months of their lives, which will be crucially important to their chances of success later. Female lion cubs who play together get to know one another really well and understand their respective roles or preferences in future hunting situations.

The bonds that form between male lion cubs in the early months of their lives will in all likelihood remain intact for many years, giving them the edge that is needed in order to be part of a successful coalition later on in life. Much of the play that we witness between cubs is based on instinct, and cats are indeed instinctive hunters. Some of the skills, however, need to be learned, and this can also take place during play, where even a mother lioness teaches her cubs by presenting herself as a target.

Next time you watch lion cubs playing, consider that what they are doing is preparing themselves for the more serious business of hunting and indeed surviving… all this while they are actually having fun!

The situation is similar with leopard cubs, but while there may be numerous lion cubs of fairly similar age within a pride, a leopard cub more often than not has just a single sibling (rarely one might have two siblings). It inevitably happens that a fair percentage of leopard cubs will lose their litter-mate within the first year of life, whether killed by lions, hyenas, crocodiles, baboons or other leopards. In my years of guiding I have seen multiple examples of leopard cubs losing their siblings, and without a doubt the loss is traumatic for them. But they get on with life, and they cope. What happens very frequently in such a scenario is that the mother leopard will change her behaviour somewhat, to include “playmate” as one of the roles she needs to fill. I have seen this on many occasions, where the bereaved mother spends more time with her single surviving cub, and actually becomes more playful with it, as if genuinely trying to fill the void left by the fatality of a cub.

Young elephants are some of the most playful creatures around. It is quite common to see them mounting one another, climbing on top of one another, wrestling, shoving heads and just having fun. Sparring among young bulls is very common, and perhaps actually prevents more serious fighting in mature bulls. A really serious fight between elephant bulls is actually a very uncommon occurrence, and this might well be as a result of rank being established much earlier in life through play and sparring.

Consider the case of impala, the most numerous of the antelope in the Sabi Sand. Within days of birth, lambs engage in what looks like a most enjoyable activity, known as stotting. This is a highly playful form of running or bounding along, almost in rocking-horse fashion. Often almost an entire herd will engage in this energetic pursuit, going one way across an open area, and then back again the other way. This can be repeated many times, and it almost appears to be some form of fitness training. Perhaps that is exactly what it is, as apart from when they do it in play, impalas will often use exactly this method of movement when being pursued by a pack of painted hunting dogs. (I have mentioned before that I find this name more fitting than just “wild dogs”.) Impalas have neither the speed nor the stamina to be able to outrun the dogs, but by employing the stotting mode of flight, with big wide eyes and without uttering any alarm calls, they sometimes seem to almost mesmerise the dogs, and make good their escape.

Whether stotting is a behaviour pattern that evolved specifically in order to increase impalas’ chances of surviving an onslaught from a pack of hunting dogs is debatable, but I have little doubt that it is a tactic which greatly increases their chance of survival. Typically, in the wild, play occurs mainly between members of the same species. Lion cubs will play with lion cubs, baby warthogs will play with other baby warthogs, elephant calves will play with each other, and so on. Every now and then, however, young animals of different species may interact with each other. I have seen a kudu calf and a zebra foal chase one another around in what was clearly a game, and it went on for several minutes. The adults of both species were nearby, and paid little attention to the somewhat atypical behaviour of their respective offspring.

Is play a behaviour pattern that is restricted to young animals? No, not all, it is sometimes witnessed among adults too. Lionesses often romp around, chasing each other and climbing trees in a youthful manner. I have not seen mature adult male lions engage in play very often, but on a few occasions I have seen them tolerate cubs coming to play with them.

Surely there is more to life than merely existing or surviving, and it would be hard to claim that all play is geared towards improving the chance of survival. Some of this behaviour must surely be just for the simple pleasure of having fun.

But I would strongly suggest that a very significant percentage of the play that we witness does have a purpose, that purpose being to better equip the young animals to suitably deal with situations and circumstances that face them many times during their journey through life.