There is growing evidence that shows it is not just kittens and baby chimps that play but also birds, reptiles, fish, and even invertebrates, including spiders and wasps. Play in non-mammalian species offers researchers novel insights into the activity’s function and evolution.
For centuries, scientists rejected the idea that animals other than mammals play even when faced with observational reports of frolicking fish or fun-loving birds.
“People tried to find every possible explanation,” Burghardt told Discover. “They thought maybe the animals just tried to knock parasites off their bodies, even though there was no evidence they were doing that.”
The article, titled “The Play’s The Thing,” highlighted the five research-based criteria Burghardt developed to define animal play activity.
The story references a 2012 study Burghardt published with Susan Riechert, Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Jonathan Pruitt, a UT alumnus who is now on the faculty of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study described the peculiar behavior of the Anelosimus studiosus spider in which males and immature females engage in what the researchers call “almost-sex” that are play interactions.
Animal play varies based on the species. “You don’t need a big brain to play,” Burghardt said. “How it is organized is probably more important.”
The article also mentions a 2014 paper Burghardt published with colleagues from UT and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park that described how three cichlid fish played with a thermometer in their tank.
The Discover article is available online (subscriber only).