Newsflash: reptiles and invertebrates 'play'
A fascinating article, Recess, in The Scientist by writer Jef Akst is a must-read for animal lovers. We all know that puppies and kittens - and human children, of course - play, but did you know that turtles, octopi, and even wasps may also play?
Gordon Burghardt, a biopsychologist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, defined play as "repeated behavior that is incompletely functional in the context or at the age in which it is performed and is initiated voluntarily when the animal (or person) is in a relaxed or low-stress setting."
It was a turtle in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. which led to Burghardt's initial eureka years ago. He watched the old soft-shelled turtle called Pigface batting a basketball around its watery enclosure, and wondered, could this be play?That ultimately led Burghardt to create five characteristics of play, so he could systematically determine whether various species of animals play, and under what conditions. The criteria include actions that are spontaneous or pleasurable, repeated, and only occur when an animal is stress-free. The idea of whether invertebrates and reptiles play has its share of skeptics, but Burghardt has since documented 'play' in wasps, Komodo dragons, softshell turtles, and octopi.
Pigface has since died, but you can see a new giant Pacific octopus at the National Zoo Invertebrates website batting around a ball on their playing-octopus-cam. This ball has food inside, though, so perhaps in the octopuses' case, it is not play, after all.