by Whit Gibbons

October 14, 2012

I recently received the following questions about animal behavior.

Q: I saw a video of a cat on a boat playing with a dolphin. Both animals seemed to be enjoying themselves. The dolphin even looked like it was smiling. Was this real or some kind of filming trickery?

A: Apparently you have never had a dolphin or a cat for a pet. A dolphin smiles perpetually, not because it thinks everything it does is funny but because that it is the way its head and mouth are shaped. When cats are not sleeping or eating they are looking for something to play with – their shadow, a cardboard box, a dolphin. I found the video you’re referring to online (, and it is as real as it gets when dolphins and cats have nothing else to do. The dolphin even looks like it is laughing. They like being filmed.

Q: My husband and I were visiting friends in Clarksville, Tenn., and saw an unusual sight: a squirrel and a rabbit playing together in the yard. I don’t mean they were tossing a ball back and forth or taking turns pushing each other in a swing, but they were clearly engaged in playful behavior. The rabbit would hop and the squirrel would chase it; then the squirrel would run and the rabbit would hop after it. All four of us witnessed this one afternoon. The next day we observed the same behavior; presumably these were the same two animals we had seen before. These were definitely wild animals, not someone’s pets. Is “playing” a common behavior in wild animals?

A: I asked Jim Beasley, who does research on wildlife ecology at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, what he knew of wild animals playing with a different species. He knew of “numerous examples,” but he suspected that “most of the individuals engaging in this behavior are young ones that are still playful and developing their hunting/fleeing skills.” He mentioned deer and other animals “playing” with cats, dogs, and squirrels. He noted that “such sightings of interspecies play often occur in urban or suburban areas where the landscape could have a role in modifying their behavior. The young of many mammals, such as coyotes, otters, foxes, raccoons, and deer, can be quite playful with their own species, so I am sure they would engage in similar behaviors with other species on occasion when the opportunity arose.”

The excellent Animal Answer Guide series published by Johns Hopkins University Press always includes a question on whether the species in question (turtles, frogs, fishes, deer, as well as rabbits and squirrels) play. Almost no fishes, frogs, toads, or turtles have much to offer in regard to being playful creatures, even when they are young. Deer raise the bar a bit in that “frogs or turtles will trigger jumping and pawing in fawns.” I’m pretty sure the frogs and turtles do not take advantage of the opportunity to return the playful gesture.

As for squirrels and rabbits, play behavior is widespread among all the species. Such activities are generally restricted to juveniles but may occasionally occur among adults. Behavioral ecologists assume that play in juvenile mammals confers some biological advantage to the individual as an adult, but for most species no research has been done to confirm this idea. However, in a study of ground squirrels, scientists documented that playing by juveniles enhanced the motor skills of individuals as adults, which helped “them avoid predators and win in fights.” Increased play among ground squirrel females “leads to greater reproductive success.”

Anyone who has ever had a puppy or a kitten knows that playful behavior is common among domestic dogs and cats, and it occurs frequently among other young mammals. Occasionally it even arises between two different species. Those situations are guided by each species’ awareness that the other does not pose a threat. A young squirrel that decided to “play” with a rattlesnake wouldn’t be around long enough for anyone to observe the behavior.

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