How far back down the evolutionary tree did ‘playing’ evolve?

Inspired by this thread,

I’m curious who else in the animal kingdom is having fun.

I assume all mammals enjoy play. Do fish?

Some parrots of my acquaintance like to play. Did they learn to play independently? Did they learn it from us? Did our reptilian common ancestor play? Or do parrots just exhibit behaviours that resemble play when given treats?

And what’s up with octopuses?

Cites welcome.

All the way down.

The question is hard to answer without defining “play”. If “enjoyment” is part of it then how we do we know what animals unlike us are subjectively experiencing?

As to what looks like play … a relevant citation:

Octopuses sure but also some spiders and wasps …

Enjoyment is definitely part of it. I’m definitely in favour of a generous interpretation. If you tickle a wombat’s tummy and it makes a sound like laughter and begs for more, I’m willing to accept that that’s play. Bees, probably not. Octopuses? I have no idea.

What about birds & reptiles & fish? Anyone had a lizard that liked to play?

This being GQ, I should begin by saying that I have no facts or cites. I came in here to say that crows, penguins, otters, etc. do things like sliding down slippery slopes, and sometimes it really looks like they’re doing it just for fun.

“Because it feels good” seems to be the motivation for lots of things we do: scratch when itchy, rest when tired, etc.

I’ve seen a couple of videos in which tortoises appear to be playing insofar as they are in a lumbering chase with a dog.

Puppies (or wolf cubs, or lion cubs) playing with each other, appear to be exercising and practicing the skills that they will put to use as adults - social domination, winning rivalry fights (albeit with no injuries) pouncing on prey, etc. So is it play or rehearsal for adulthood actions? Similarly when a cat chases a string (or a laser pointer) are they playing, or are we teasing them to force them to express the instinct to chase what appears to be prey?

“If a child’s school lessons are fun, are they really learning?”


The August Scientific American just arrived and its cover article is titled, “Why Animals Play”. I haven’t read it yet, but I assume it will give some answers (or at least conjectures) on this question.

I look forward to your full report!

The article, which I just read, did not talk about the evolution of play, only about its benefits. Basically the young develop their skills in play. They learn to hunt, to evade predation and basically grow up. The article was mostly about elephants and how play also develops social behavior and, in one interesting case, how the children’s play healed a social crevice. Even among adults, play hones cognition.

But it does not look at evolution, or whether non-mammals play. Do ants cavort? Dunno.