Play behavior of the animals

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Play behavior of an already adult house cat
Two kittens in a playful fight
Two young male polar bears in a playful fight (November 1999, Canada)

Behavioral biologists describe various sequences of movements as play behavior , especially in young animals, which usually cannot be assigned to a specific purpose: “An animal really only plays when it is full, not thirsty and not engaged in any other tasks. In a sense, the game is not dictated by any immediate necessity. However, it is of great importance for the normal development of the animal. [...] It experiments with environmental things and gets to know their properties. They gain experience in playing with their peers and also get to know the possibilities of their own movement skills. "

Biological function of play

The movement sequences, which are often referred to as “play” and often occur several times in a row, often resemble certain innate movement sequences of adult conspecifics and cannot always be differentiated from targeted activities such as exploratory behavior. In connection with play behavior it can often be observed that the behavior of older animals or playmates is imitated; Apes often imitate humans.

Behavioral researchers usually interpret gaming behavior as a biologically programmed (that is, inherited) “optimization” of certain behaviors. Young wolves and young dogs, for example, often chase each other for long periods of time, cutting off their paths - activities that are later important for survival when fleeing or hunting. Young domestic cats and lion cubs are known for their playful sneaking up, jumping at non-existent prey and "attacking" with paws. The behavioral researchers also interpret gaming behavior as an innate tendency to generally optimize physical performance and dexterity through “training”, “that is, it serves to get to know one's own body and one's own movement possibilities, as well as to collect by trying out or imitating of experiences with parts of the animate and inanimate environment. "


The ethologists of the early 20th century assigned an independent internal drive to each observable behavior, each with its own instinct or drive , and gambling behavior was also occasionally assigned a play drive . As recently as the 1960s, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt discussed in his Outline of Comparative Behavioral Research : “Playing always means engaging in a dialogue with the environment, and this dialogue takes place from within. One could assume one's own instinct to play. However, I am more inclined to believe that the drive to learn, which is also the basis of all curiosity, together with a strong excess of motor drive is sufficient to explain the game phenomenon. ”And even in 2004 a scientific study was carried out quite naturally - without any definition of the phenomenon "Play instinct " in dogs, although the biological drive theory in academic behavioral biology today only has historical significance.

In relation to humans, the term play instinct is primarily used metaphorically . From literature of historical importance are the reflections of Friedrich Schiller , who in his letters the Aesthetic Education About the People (11 to 16 letters) to "playfulness" called "living form" in the aesthetic "game" that drove satisfactory "happiness" and unite moral “perfection”.



Many domestic animals also show pronounced play behavior as adults, especially house dogs , house cats and house rabbits . Presumably, this is not only a result of breeding for generally extended young animal behavior. Rather, the tendency to play was probably the reason that early animal keepers took a liking to these animal species.

In the game of cats and dogs, for example, sequences of movements from the behavioral complex of capturing prey, the fight against attackers and sexual behavior occur, but usually without the associated end action (e.g. no hard biting). Playing animals often change roles several times within a very short period of time - the attacker becomes the victim and vice versa. By means of typical game gestures and facial expressions - for example the front body low position - the playing partner is conveyed that the playful actions are actions without seriousness.


In an experiment reported in 2019, it was possible to play hide and seek with rats : a test animal was first placed in a room full of objects in a closed box, the lid of which could be opened remotely. The aim of the experiment was that the rat should look for a person who was also in the room. When she found this person, they were tickled as a reward. A second experimental set-up was about the fact that the rat should learn to hide from a “fellow player” - in both experimental set-ups, the given behavior was observed after a few runs. In an accompanying article on , the findings were interpreted as follows: “Although the animals were 'rewarded' with tickling at the end of each test run, according to the researchers it became clear that they weren't just playing for the sake of the reward. The fun of the game was shown by special vocalizations: the rats squeaked happily when they searched - especially when they found the person, the scientists report. On the other hand, they were extremely quiet when they were hiding. "


Wild chimpanzees of the Kanyawara chimpanzee population were repeatedly observed in Kibale National Park in Uganda between 1993 and 2006 using sticks as tools both in foraging and in fighting. Young animals also occasionally play with small sticks. “However, the Kanyawara chimpanzees showed another variant that the researchers dubbed 'cane carriers'. The animals carried sticks around with them for a while, took them to their resting nests and sometimes played with them in a way that almost reminded one of dealing with a doll or a baby chimpanzee. ”Above all, the playing behavior of the young female chimpanzees was reminiscent of the behavior of adult females when dealing with newborns: "The young female chimpanzees abandoned the abnormal behavior as soon as they had their first offspring."

Vervet monkeys

In a study by Alexander & Hines (2002), gender differences were found in the toy preferences of a non-human primate , the western green monkey ( Chlorocebus sabaeus ). These differences are similar to those already documented in children. Female vervet monkeys showed a more pronounced gender-typical preference than male conspecifics.

In the study, six toys were placed in random order one after the other in a cage of small groups of green monkeys for five minutes. These toys have been divided into three categories based on the toy preferences of girls and boys. Among other things, a ball and a police car were presented, which boys were more interested in than girls. These were defined   a priori  as a “male toy set”. The “female toy set” that more girls than boys showed interest in was a doll and a saucepan. The “neutral toy set”, with which both girls and boys spent a comparable amount of time, consisted of books and stuffed animals.  

While male vervet monkeys occupied themselves with “male toys” for a longer period of time, female animals invested more time with dolls and pots. The time that both male and female green monkeys spent with the "neutral toy" was comparable. In addition, the way in which the vervet monkeys came into contact with the toy was in some cases similar to the way children interacted with them (e.g. moving the car across the floor). No gender differences were found in response to the toy categories animate (doll, dog) and inanimate (car, ball, book, pan). Other characteristics such as color, on the other hand, seem to have contributed to female object preferences, whereby the females had more contact with the pupa with a pink face and the red colored pot. It can be concluded that sex-differentiated object preferences arose early in human evolution . These object feature preferences can contribute to sex-dimorphic toy preferences in children.


In addition to mammals, researchers also observed play behavior in birds and reptiles. Komodo dragons look as playful as young dogs when they play with old shoes or balls. And African softshell turtles seem to have fun pushing bottles and other flotsam across the surface of the water and playing tug of war with tubes.

See also


  • Marc Bekoff and John A. Byers (Eds.): Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0-52158383-1 .
  • Anthony D. Pellegrini and Peter K. Smith (Eds.): The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans. The Guildford Press, New York / London 2005, ISBN 1-59385-117-0 .
  • Janice M. Hassett, Erin R. Siebert and Kim Wallen: Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. In: Hormones and Behavior. Volume 54, No. 3, 2008, pp. 359-364, doi: 10.1016 / j.yhbeh.2008.03.008 .
  • Suzanne DE Held and Marek Špinka: Animal play and animal welfare. Review article in: Animal Behavior. Volume 81, No. 5, 2011, pp. 891-899, doi: /10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.01.007 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Gambling behavior  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt : Outline of Comparative Behavioral Research. 7th edition. Piper, Munich and Zurich 1967, pp. 403-404, ISBN 3-492-03074-2 .
  2. Keyword gaming behavior. In: Klaus Immelmann (ed.): Grzimeks animal life . Special volume behavioral research. Kindler, Zurich 1974, p. 637
  3. ↑ In 1910, Oskar Heinroth mentioned in a lecture on "the biology, namely the ethology and psychology of the anatids " (the duck birds), the following "instincts": the reproductive instinct, the sociability instinct, the succession instinct, the defense instinct and the rape instinct. Full text .
  4. For example: Fritz Braun, About impulses of the play instinct in caught birds. In: Journal of Ornithology. Volume 55, No. 1, 1907, pp. 135-147, doi: 10.1007 / BF02098854 .
  5. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt: Outline of Comparative Behavioral Research , p. 404.
  6. Katharina Dorothea Boenigk: Investigations on the breeding significance of behavioral tests in Hovawart dogs. Dissertation, University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Hannover 2004, full text (PDF) .
  7. Annika Stefanie Reinhold et al .: Behavioral and neural correlates of hide-and-seek in rats. In: Science . Volume 365, No. 6458, 2019, pp. 1180–1183, doi: 10.1126 / science.aax4705
    Rats also play hide and seek. Explanations by the Humboldt University of Berlin from September 13, 2019.
  8. Researchers play hide and seek with rats. On: from September 12, 2019.
  9. Sonya M. Kahlenberg and Richard W. Wrangham: Sex differences in chimpanzees' use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children. In: Current Biology. Volume 20, No. 24, 2010, pp. R1067 – R1068, doi: 10.1016 / j.cub.2010.11.024 , full text
  10. Chimpanzee girls also prefer to play with “dolls”. On: from December 27, 2010.
  11. What monkey girls like. On: from December 21, 2010.
  12. Gerianne M Alexander, Melissa Hines: Sex differences in response to children's toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). In: Evolution and Human Behavior . tape 23 , no. 6 , November 1, 2002, ISSN  1090-5138 , p. 467-479 ., Doi : 10.1016 / S1090-5138 (02) 00107-1 . - The species is known today as the western green monkey ( Chlorocebus sabaeus ).
  13. Why animals play: what nonsense. But makes sense. On: from January 11, 2015