Why do animals play? The complex evolution of fun | Science

 Why do animals play?  The complex evolution of fun |  Science

Cats can take the game very seriously. For a few weeks now, every night, before dinner, I entertain the cat with some feathers tied to a reed. he loves it He hides behind the couch, crouches in a stalking position, wiggles his butt, zeroing in on the toy before running down the hall and catching a prey he knows is fake. Then he stops. Drop the feathers from the mouth and look at me. He wants me to keep moving them, get back to running and jumping. Have fun. He would spend more time on the game than I give him. Some dogs do the same, they are insatiable, they never tire of bringing you the ball. And there they go again, the tail betrays his happiness. We are all familiar with the game of cats and dogs. We recognize it, when we contemplate one of these scenes, which today crowd social networks, we deduce that the animals are enjoying themselves, but what happens to the rest of the species? Do all animals play?

It is not an easy question to answer. To do this, it should first be possible to correctly define what the game is. In creatures that are common to us, such as dogs and cats, and even with other domesticated animals, we can even interpret if they are having fun with an activity; perhaps we would even be able to extend this intuition to other wild mammals, but the reality is that it is impossible for us to deduce the emotions of most species. How to know when a crocodile is having fun? Does a crow feel pleasure when sledding across a snowy roof? Do octopuses enjoy squirting water into a bottle to make it dance? It is not easy to decipher what ludic is. Scientists have provided different definitions, and various criteria have been considered that a behavior must meet in order to be considered a game.

The first of these is that the action should be useless at the time of execution. For example, my cat, no matter how much he chases the feather cane and hunts it down, does not get any food from it. The second points out that the action must be voluntary, without the individuals who are performing it being forced to act that way by the environmental conditions: the crow that scurries across the snowy roof does so by choice, perhaps because it it’s nice, not because he has no other way to get off the roof or accidentally slipped on it. It should also be noted that the action takes place when the animals are relaxed and satiated; A behavior cannot be considered play if hunger or fear may be conditioning the action. Facts must be different from their functional equivalents. So, when a cat plays with me, it bites me delicately, just like when other animals play fight, the blows and bites they give each other are not the same as when they are involved in a real conflict . Finally, the behavior should not be anecdotal, but should be repeated over time or observed in various individuals. More and more behaviors meet these requirements. Researchers are accumulating evidence in the most varied species, of which until recently it was unlikely to think that they played, because beyond the usual mammals. These behaviors have been described in birds, reptiles, fish, and even in some invertebrates such as octopuses and spiders. Game is more common in the animal world than previously thought, but it is not universal; it appears in some groups, but not in others, here and there, dotting different branches of the phylogenetic tree that lead to the reasons for its evolution. After all, playing is not like feeding or reproducing, it does not seem a basic function in the life of an individual, so what is the use of the game?

The simplest explanation we find is the one that considers that the game has no function at all. Animals could play for the hell of it. This could be the case for mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) when they plant themselves in the middle of a stream and begin to sweep the water with their arms from one side to the other. Both males and females, as many 7-year-olds as 15-year-old adults, can spend minutes splashing around. Male western lowland gorillas (gorilla gorilla gorilla) dramatically hit the water as a display of power, but what is seen in mountain gorillas does not seem to be a deterrent, nor a show of force, but rather an act of pleasure, a diversion; Just as rats playing feud have been shown to enjoy bursts of dopamine and other neural chemicals that activate the brain’s reward pathway. Dogs that bring you the ball to be thrown over and over seem to have figured out how to exploit this reward system to feel pleasure multiple times. And although in some cases the game may lack another evolutionary purpose than to be something gratifying, evoking pleasure avoids trying to explain its adaptive purpose, and, although the idea is tempting, it is still difficult to demonstrate, since it does not We are able to imagine the usefulness of some behaviors does not imply that such use does not exist. After all, clarifying the motivations and benefits of play, beyond its rewarding value, could tell us a lot about ourselves and our cognitive development.

One of the most accepted hypotheses is to think that the game helps to learn important skills, in such a way that my cat, by chasing the fake feathers, would be learning and exercising his hunting skills. This is a widely held idea, an explanation that seems obvious and yet has not withstood scientific scrutiny. Neither the cats that grew up surrounded by cat toys turned out to be better hunters than the others, nor did the Asian otters (Aonyx cinereus) who juggle more stones are better at solving puzzles or extracting food than otters who do not juggle. The number of experiments that have failed to test the usefulness of play is surprising, suggesting that many animals do not seem to learn much through play. In humans, it is also not very clear, there is no consistent data that ensures that the game improves creativity, problem solving or social skills in children. Hard evidence is lacking, and perhaps the problem is that gaming doesn’t improve easy-to-measure things like IQ, but more subtle and hard-to-measure things like preparing the brain to deal with life’s uncertainties. By playing, animals explore new possibilities, new challenges, reducing future uncertainties. Young rats growing up in isolation have been shown to have less developed prefrontal cortex, an area of ​​the brain involved in social interactions and decision making, and come to have less short-term memory, impulse control, and reaction to other rats, so these individuals are not as good as those who have played with others at fighting, having sex or facing a new environment. We are not rats, but we look a lot alike…

Perhaps the game is an evolutionary byproduct. The young and young, of almost all species, have an innate need to explore and experiment to discover what to eat and what dangers to avoid, something that can end up becoming something playful in animals with a certain cognitive capacity and enough free time. Thus, octopuses play a lot when they are in an aquarium, but not so much in the sea, where eating and hiding to survive, are supposed to occupy all their time. The same could be true of Komodo dragons playing tug-of-war with their keepers in zoos, crocodiles playing fetch with their tails, or geckos once having fun with a floating object in zero gravity at aboard the Russian satellite Bion-M1: everyone has free time, like us when we get hooked watching videos of animals playing on social networks.

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