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Bottlenose dolphins come out to play

New research shows young bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) learn and develop through play, just like human children.

Anyone who has a dog or a cat will know that they play, particularly when they are young.  Play is an important way of testing and understanding the world about them.


Problem solving skills

Play also creates scenarios, and tests positions and possibilities.  It develops prowess and agility.  It rehearses action,  and with different behavioural strategies and methods, individuals can develop a variety of problem-solving skills that can be applied across different contexts. It enhances stimulation and sensory experience, but above all,  play is by its nature 'enjoyable'.

Cultural learning

Like humans, dolphins have big brains.  Play is also vital for  developing the complex neural circuitry of a dolphin's  brain, a great deal of which will be forming after birth and in early life.

Previous research suggests that complex social and cultural characteristics, such as hunting together, developing regional dialects and learning from observation, are linked to the expansion of the animal brains.

Dolphins also learn by watching others play.

Dolphins at play

Researchers writing in the journal Behavioral Processes observed the play behaviour of 30 dolphins, ranging in age from one to 24. Behaviours were categorized as either social or solitary, which also included observational play (watching others play) or parallel play (independent play close to others).

Like many species, play behaviours were found to decrease into adulthood. Despite the social nature of bottlenose dolphins, calves (1-3 years) and juveniles (4-7 years) engaged in solitary play more often than social play, suggesting it may help to teach individuals the skills they need to engage with others.

Like human children, dolphins play with their age group

Young dolphins also preferred to engage in social play with dolphins of similar ages, rather than adults.   But as calves age, "their preference for playing with peers of the same age becomes less characteristic of their play interactions, and instead older and more experienced individuals are selected as play partners."

The researchers say understanding these behaviours could lead to better social environments for dolphins in managed care, but it also adds to our understanding of the role of play.

through development of a more diverse behavioral repertoire, stereotypical behavior and behavioral deficits should also decrease, resulting in more natural and enriching lifestyle.
It might also lead to a better understanding of creativity and problem solving.




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