While I was digging around for evidence of, or anecdotes about, a human-reptile bond, I stumbled upon another line of inquiry that hadn’t even occurred to me:

Do reptiles play?

Turns out some scientists have concluded that they do. Here’s University of Tennessee psychology and evolutionary biology professor Gordon Burghardt on the matter:

“I studied the behavior of baby and juvenile reptiles for many years and never saw anything that I thought was play. Then I had an epiphany when I saw Pigface, a Nile softshell turtle, batting around a basketball at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I realized reptiles play, too.

Take 2 minutes and 58 seconds to watch Pigface with her ball, and a Komodo dragon called Kraken engaged in what looks for all the world like a game of tug.

Now see if you agree with biological anthropologist Kerrie Lewis Graham of Texas State University: “When you see it, you think, ‘What is it, if it’s not play?’ They’re not feeding themselves, they’re not trying to get a mate, they’re not searching for shelter. They’re playing.”

And yet, it’s hard to say for sure. Play remains something of a black box; we can observe its components, but its inner workings stay hidden. Even its purpose remains ambiguous. A lot of it seems to be practice for real life, but some of it sure does look like it’s just for fun.

from PatriciaMcConnell.com

Among dogs and other social animals, the language of play is so complex and nuanced that researchers have to analyze video footage frame by frame, hour after hour after hour, to decode it. Play among solitary animals holds plenty of mysteries as well.  And when animals we don’t even expect to play do something that looks like play, what do we make of it? When it comes down to it, what IS play anyway?

Scientist who study play need a set of “diagnostic” criteria that can detect actual play and weed out non-play. These have to be exacting enough to filter out noise in the data, but universal enough to apply to a broad range of taxonomic categories–e.g. from octopuses to orangutans.

For our purposes, let’s stick with the criteria developed by Dr. Burghardt. Why? Because they make sense to me, he’s published prolifically in a multitude of reputable scientific journals, and he’s widely cited by other scientists in his field.

To qualify as play, Burghardt says a behavior has to be all these things:

  1. Incompletely functional in the context in which it appears
  2. Spontaneous, pleasurable, rewarding, or voluntary
  3. Different from other more serious behaviors in form (e.g., exaggerated) or timing (e.g., occurring early in life before the more serious version is needed)
  4. Repeated, but not in abnormal and unvarying stereotypic form (e.g., rocking or pacing)
  5. Initiated in the absence of severe stress

 I’ll leave it to the scientists to run their data through this rubric and issue verdicts on what’s play and what isn’t. When I watch animals who look like they’re playing, I don’t trot out Burghardt’s Big Five. I invoke the words of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart grasping for a definition of porn: “I know it when I see it.” Sometimes just believing that something is play is enough for me.

84672_webBut how cool is it that a science of animal play exists, and that “serious” scholars study it? And would you believe the journal Current Biology this month devoted its entire 25 year anniversary issue to the biology of FUN. Can you imagine, there’s even an article in there called “Fun and Play in Invertebrates”?! I can’t wait to dive in.

Got a fun story about reptiles playing? Or any other surprising play or play-like action by any pet? Share it!

To dig deeper, try…

And here’s a fascinating lecture by Dr. Burghardt