Primates are exceptionally playful animals. In fact, primates tend to spend more time playing compared to every other taxonomic group observed. Researchers speculate that the quantity and quality of primate play is directly related to cognitive and behavioral abilities. These abilities include extractive foraging, tool use, behavioral innovation, and complex sociality.
If play does function to aid in the development of cognitive and behavioral patterns among primates, then we should expect to observe a positive relationship between the incidence of play and the incidence of complex behaviors across primates, and a coevolutionary association between play and neural matter that underlies complex cognition and behavior. For the latter, focusing on specific gross-anatomical neural structures may not be the best objective test for the following reasons:
Previous research by Montgomery (2014) has observed a significant positive relationship between play and the frequency of extractive foraging, tool use, behavioral innovation, and tactical deception among eleven primate species.
The purpose of the following study is to explore whether play has coevolved with the cortico-cerebellar system, a neural system known underlie complex cognition and the production of complex behavior in primates.
In order to measure this relationship, researchers collected two types of data: mean percentage of time budget allocated to play (all types) by eight primate species (across age and sex); and, frequency of adult-adult social play. While both data sets of primate play have their advantages and limitations, researcher believe that the data sets are complimentary and mutually reinforcing. Predictions were conducted using phylogenetic comparative anaylses to determine whether play has coevolved with the cortico-cerebellar system.
The researchers observed significant positive relationship between the mean percentage of time budget spent in play and their relative size of:
These results suggest that, in general, there is a positive relationship between play and relative size of the components of the cortico-cerebellar system, a major system in the primate brain that underlies complex skills such as extractive foraging, tool use, and sociality. Although there are limitations present, the results support the concept that high level of play observed in primates is associated with the development of cognitive and behavioral abilities. More specifically, the results support the idea that play is associated with the neural substrates of those abilities.
Kerney, M., Smaers, J., Schoenemann, P., & Dunn, J. (2017). The coevolution of play and the cortico-cerebellar system in primates. Primates. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10329-017-0615-x
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