VEGA News Item

Gorillas Play Tag to Learn Life Skills - 15/07/2010

Sense of Fair Play Resembles Humans’

1.  Gorillas play tag to establish the upper hand over their peers, the results of research at the University of Portsmouth indicates. The animals also have a sophisticated sense of “fair play” and use games to establish social dominance in a way that mirrors playground exchanges between children. While children traditionally decide who is “it” using “eeny, meeny, miney, mo” counting, gorilla chases normally begin after one animal hits another too hard during play-fighting. Marina Davila-Ross, a psychologist of the University of Portsmouth, who led the research, said: “The gorillas hit their playmates and then ran away, chased by their playmates….They also switched roles when hit, so the chaser became the chased and vice versa.” Footage shows them chasing and clobbering each other while displaying the classic, open-mouthed expression of apes at play. Dr Davila-Ross recorded the behaviour of 21 gorillas in colonies at zoos in Berlin, Hanover, Munster, Stuttgart, and Zurich.

2.  After landing a heavier-than-average blow, the perpetrator would flee, implying both an awareness of having not played fair and a desire to retain the upper hand. By pursuing, the other gorilla appeared unwilling to accept unfair treatment; by tagging, the perpetrator aimed to re-establish equality. Scientists believe that such unfair play behaviors allow apes-and humans-to test the limits of what is acceptable social behavior. Play-fights and chasing also provide a low-risk test of strength and speed. The Plymouth study offers the first evidence that animals other than humans adapt behavior depending on whether a situation is fair or not.

3.  Dr Davila-Ross adds: “How far you can go with an individual is important for social interactions later in life.” The study suggests that humans are not the only apes to have a sense of injustice and be motivated to seek revenge. The full report appears in the latest Royal Society Journal Biology Letters.


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