One of the perks of living in the bush is that being able to see incredible sightings is not limited to game drives. Just outside my house is a Red Ivory tree, which serves as endless amusement for the resident troop of vervet monkeys. I have often sat and watched them as they launch themselves from one branch to the next with the greatest of ease. What has particularly intrigued me is how the young monkeys constantly play together. They chase each other through the trees, launching several meters through the air before landing on another tree. Often, curiosity gets the better of them if another finds something of interest and can sometimes result in serious fights (if that something of interest gets stolen) and it is not uncommon to see the adults intervene.
Lactation and the luxury of parental care probably affords young mammals the spare time and freedom to play. Why they seem to play is a topic that is still being disputed and it seems we might not have the answer yet. Play could be an integral part of learning for young animals.
The most playful mammals appear to be the young primates and carnivores. I have used the word “appear” here because even some experts in the field have difficulty in distinguishing whether some behaviour is playful or not. Young mammals are far more playful than their adult counterparts, and the reasons behind why they play are still being investigated. Play could be related to learning that will benefit them in their later lifestyles. Leopard and lion cubs often spar with their siblings, stalking and pouncing one another. Other times they may swat at each other while up on their hind legs. Young elephants often mock charge at other animals, particularly at a water source. In fact, I have witnessed a young elephant bull chasing every Egyptian goose within site at a dam, and leave apparently satisfied with himself. The correspondence between play and adult behaviour makes it look like play could be highly beneficial for future behaviour. After all, practice makes perfect. But this is not always the case. Some animals that have grown up in laboratories or without other siblings have often grown to become capable adults. Some theories also suggest that play could develop hunting skills, strengthen social bonds and reduce aggression. Although these are all plausible, I’d also like to believe that play is probably just a lot of fun!