What counts as play?


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

Reptilophiles: Warming up to the Cold-Blooded

P1010581Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pet reptiles and their people. As an admirer of all wildlife, including the decidedly un-cuddly, I can easily get jazzed about reptile biology and behavior. I’m the first to volunteer for any chance to hold a snake, and I was overjoyed to find a wayward baby rat snake in my storage room. (I set it free outside.) I’ve held turtle eggs in my hand while they hatched. I defended a five-lined skink from marauding pre-school boys at my pool.

But… taking a pet reptile under my wing just isn’t my thing. I’ve never really cozied up to a lizard, snake, turtle, or any other dry, scaly, soft-egg-laying, cold-blooded vertebrate. For that matter, none has ever cozied up to me. And if one did, would that be just because it needed to warm up? Can reptiles experience, and express, anything that looks or feels like affection? Does it even matter? Reptile people can’t just be hoping for a bond; there must be more to the story. So what is it that puts the magic in these unconventional companions for the people who nurture them?

Ravi and Mr. Kipling from the Disney Channel show "Jessie"
Ravi and Mr. Kipling from the Disney Channel show “Jessie”

Let’s look at the question of bonding with humans. Naturally I’m not the first one to ask this question, and I found plenty of dogma out there at both poles–from “yes of course my bearded dragon loves me” to “no, you jackass, reptile brains are incapable of anything beyond finding food and making baby reptiles.” As one who holds science in the highest regard, I turned to scientists for a definitive answer. Of course, scientists live to debate and disprove each other, and getting “definitive” with something as subjective as emotions is a challenge. But I liked what I heard from veterinarian Sharman Hoppes at Texas A & M University on the question of whether a reptile can love you:

from WikiHow.com
from WikiHow.com

“I don’t know if it is love, but lizards and tortoises appear to like some people more than others.” Dr. Hoppes goes on to say, “Some reptiles do appear to enjoy human contact, especially when food is offered. Many will respond to feeding times, coming to certain people they associate with food.” Apparently turtles and lizards who like being handled will stay relaxed and stay put, rather than moving away. Extending the neck and closing the eyes are other signs of comfort.

A cynic might say we’ve set the bar pretty low if, to demonstrate affection, we require reptiles merely to put up with petting and come to us for food. But then again, isn’t our bond with our more “traditional” mammalian pets built upon a similarly rudimentary foundation?

IMG_0758I love my rabbits. Why? Uh…because they’re funny to watch, and their fur is soft. Do they love me? Well, they put up with my petting them, and they sprint to me when I call them…because I might have food. I can’t prove there’s more to it than that. But I don’t need more.

I love my dog. Why? Because she’s a soulful, lovely creature who seems loyal and smart. Does she love me? She puts up with petting–even seems to like it. But presumably that’s because it feels good, not necessarily because of love. She licks my face–to show love, or because my skin tastes good? Dunno. She associates me with food, and with feeling safe and warm and getting her needs met. I believe there’s more to it than that, but I can’t prove it. And I don’t require it.

Proving that any pet loves any person, then, may be beyond what science can deliver. But I think we feel a bond with whomever we care for, and the degree of reciprocity isn’t necessarily an important factor in the intensity of our connection. Reptile owners may find them fascinating to observe. Snakes and lizards are kind of badass, so maybe their owners get to be badass by association. Reptile care can be pretty complex–sometimes involving a regimen of special lighting, frequent water changes, a diet of live creepy-crawlies–and that complexity probably attracts certain people.

My friend recently spent almost $400 taking her kid’s pet turtle to an exotic veterinarian to be x-rayed and diagnosed with egg retention. Why? Certainly not because the turtle loves her. It’s because she feels attached to the turtle, and wants to do right by it. I think that’s probably the crux of it for a lot of us pet people, no matter who the pet happens to be.

Are you a reptile lover? Have you ever been loved by a reptile?