Origins of Animal Play

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Cephalopods: The First Players?

Octopus vulgaris.jpg

Acknowledgement of play phenomena in animals has traditionally been limited to mammals and birds, but growing research in ethology, the naturalistic study of animal behavior from an evolutionary perspective, suggests that the "lower vertebrates" and some invertebrates, such as bees, ants, and octopuses also engage in play (Burghardt 2005). Studies of the common octopus, pictured above, both in captivity and in the wild, have shown the creature to exhibit various forms of intelligence, including locomotor and object play. While research has shown octopuses can learn to open jars to get at food without training, they have also been observed playing with objects such as Lego blocks without incentive (and controlling for exploratory behavior), as well as using their jets to play with floating objects.

The "Playfulness" of Nature


In his short and provocative essay "On the Six-cornered Snowflake," Johannes Kepler searched for a "formative principle" which would explain the consistent form yet amazing variety of the flakes. He concludes that although the snowflakes are not organized through an internal, "definite purpose" like living things, they do carry out a project, concluding: "formative reason does not act only for a purpose, but also to adorn. It does not strive to fashion only natural bodies, but is in the habit also of playing with the passing moment, as is shown by many ores from mines. I transpose the meaning of all such from playfulness (in that we say that Nature plays) to this serious intention." This describes a kind of emergent order that Jacques Monod would later describe as a "teleonomic" process.

Play Processes, Evolution, and Mind

Burghardt process-play 1-2-3.PNG

In trying to provide insight into the evolutionary purposes of animal play, Gordon Burghardt provides the outline of play processes pictured above. According to Burghardt, understanding the "primary play process" in animals is crucial to understanding the origins of play. This overview of play phenomena provides an interesting means for apprehending a continuum between chance or context-based sensory-motor play (primary play process) and the more reflexive play that is more generative and developmental (tertiary play process).


BBC: Polar Bears Play-fighting

One of the more well observed forms of play in animals is play-fighting. In the above video polar bears are shown play-fighting, an activity observable in most mammals, exemplifying the ability to communicate the play signal "this is play" (Bateson 1955).

Social Play and Evolution

TEDTalk: Evolution's Gift: Bonobo Play

In this lecture primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo discusses the Bonobo apes and the complexity of their highly social play rituals.

Inter-species Animal Play

BBC: Polar Bears and Dogs Playing

The video above captures a polar bear and huskies play-fighting.

Animal Play and "Humanity"

RT: "Crowboarding"

In this video captured in Russia a crow is seen using a small flat object to repeatedly "snowboard" down a snow-covered roof. Capturing novel play in animals has become one of the more popular genres of Youtube videos, and Internet phenomena like LOLCats and other meme forms using animal imagery suggest that humans naturally delight in seeing play in other animals and take it as a sign of a compatible form of intelligence.


  1. Fagen, Robert. Animal Play Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  2. Burghardt, Gordon. The Genesis of Anminal Play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
  3. Kepler, Johannes. "On the Six-Cornered Snowflake." 1611.
  4. Bateson, Gregory. "A Theory of Play and Fantasy." 1955.
  5. Kuba, M., Byrne, R., Meisel, D., & Mather, J. (2006). "When do octopuses play? Effects of repeated testing, object type, age, and food deprivation on object play in Octopus vulgaris." Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120 (3), 184-190
  6. Monod, Jacques. Chance and Necessity. Trans. Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Knopf,1971 (1970).
  7. PBS NOVA, "How Smart is an Octopus?"
  8. Indiana University, Moment of Science: "Games And Sophisticated Intelligence"
  9. Timeline of Evolutionary History of Life
  10. Cephalopods