Newsroom: Primate play

This week, we debut a new section on the Ethogram: Newsroom. Here, we aim to make scientific literature more accessible to the general public by covering recent publications by UC Davis Animal Behavior students, faculty, affiliates, and the broader research community.

Diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) playing in the Maromizaha Protected Area [Photo credit: Meredith Lutz]

Researchers at UC Davis, Bucknell University, and GERP [the Malagasy primate research group] have recently developed new techniques for analyzing animal affiliation data. Although many wild animals play (like the diademed sifaka [Propithecus diadema] in the picture), researchers do not fully understand what benefits animals gain from doing so. Possibilities include that animals gain physical skills, social skills, or better learn to deal with unexpected circumstances. To better understand which of these possibilities explained why animals play, researchers quantified how animals picked their play partners. They observed brown capuchins (Cebus apella), hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas), and diademed sifaka for over 1,000 total hours and recorded every time the animals played, including who they played with, for how long, and at what intensity. In order to compare their play partner preferences to their affiliative partners (i.e. animals that they engage in friendly, positive interactions with), the researchers also measured general affiliation patterns using the animal’s spatial proximity to each other and their grooming behavior.

Diademed sifaka grooming – a measure of affiliative behavior in primate species [Photo credit: Meredith Lutz]

Using a new type of social network analysis called exponential random graph models (ERGM’s), they found that across all species, animals that individuals affiliated with outside of play were the same animals that these individuals played with. This aligned with what would be predicted if animals were using play to learn how to deal with unexpected circumstances. In this case, play is risky, so animals should choose their close social partners to decrease that risk. They also found that the capuchins and sifaka generally played with animals who were similar to them, further decreasing the potential risks during play. In further research, Lutz et al. hope to broaden their research on play to more groups and species to understand the generalizability of their findings. They also demonstrated the utility of their social network method in understanding complex social behaviors in animals, opening up a variety of other possible research avenues.

The authors of the article would like to thank the field team for their instrumental data collection and logistics support. Key players included Rose Marie RANDRIANARISON, MS for logistical support in Maromizaha, Herinjetovo MAMINIRIMA (right) and Heritiana Dieu Donne RANDRIANATOANDRO (second from right) for data collection and animal tracking, and a team of cooks.

For more information:

You can check out the Ethogram’s previous coverage of Meredith’s field work here.

Lutz, M.C.*, Ratsimbazafy, J., & Judge, P. G. (2019). Use of social network models to understand play partner choice strategies in three primate species. Primates, 60, 247-260.

*Denotes UC Davis ABGG-affiliated authors

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