General Question

submariner's avatar

What is the lowest form of life that engages in play?

Asked by submariner (4160points) January 6th, 2011

Dolphins, chimps, puppies, kittens, and bunnies play. I’m pretty sure bugs do not play. Do mice? Chickens? Lizards? Frogs? Fish?

For purposes of this question, let’s set aside epistemological concerns and assume that ethologists (or pet owners, farmers, hunters, or whoever happens to be observing these creatures) can correctly identify play behavior when they see it.

Anecdotes welcome. Jokes/puns about “lowest form of life” are not (so don’t answer “men”).

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32 Answers

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Let’s get our orientations straight, first. I presume that you place humans among “the highest” forms of life (for whatever reason), but what do you define as “low” forms of life (aside from “everything else”, that is)?

Personally, I consider humans as “just another” form of life, though I personally identify with many of them. I wouldn’t try to distinguish the ‘order’ of other forms of life: dogs higher than cats, of course, but where do horses fall in that lineup, and seahorses and spiders?

submariner's avatar

Yadda yadda yadda.

Horses play. Do seahorses or spiders play?

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Well, let’s say, for instance, that horses and seahorses both play. Which one is ‘lower’?

Coloma's avatar

Every mammal engages in some sort of play, whether it is to sharpen hunting skills, fighting skills, or just for the joy of it.

My goose likes to collect rocks and carry them to his swimming pool and then ‘plays’ with them.

He plays in the hose, and actually flings it out of his pool when it is done filling.

The horses up the hill love to race each other and play tag, and, they get off on chasing the sheep around.

I think play is a natural part of ALL well contented creatures whose basic needs are met.


Nothing is ‘lower’, just different.

Intelligence measurements aside, play is play, whether you are a seahorse or a horse, horse.

LostInParadise's avatar

My guess would be that play is confined to mammals and birds. I can’t even imagine a reptile playing let alone invertebrates.

wundayatta's avatar

The squirrels play in my backyard. They chase each other all over the place for no apparent reason.

But to me, it looked like the paramecium were playing when I saw that video long ago. It looked like bumper cars at the fair. Perhaps even viruses play. I’ve never watched them, so I couldn’t make a judgment. I know they mess around with me and my family a lot. They think it’s funny. We don’t.

crisw's avatar

Interesting question. Setting aside the valid points about the definition of “lower,” play is known in almost all mammals, many birds, some reptiles and even some invertebrates such as the octopus.

Coloma's avatar

I saw a pair of lizards sunning themsleves side by side on my deck one day with their arms around each other. lol
Maybe not ‘play’, but, who are we to determine anythings capacity or emotion or motive?

Some things just cannot be known, doesn’t make them any less real.

I prefer to think the lizards were in love. ;-)

crisw's avatar


Actually, Gordon Burghardt did come up with a pretty good definition of animal play. “Play is repeated, intrinsically rewarding, but incompletely functional (not functional at the time it is being performed), behavior differing from more serious versions structurally (how it looks), contextually (when it is performed), or ontogenetically (youth playing more than adults), and initiated when the animal is in a relaxed or low stress setting.”

Kardamom's avatar

@wundayatta Wouldn’t you love to see an all paramecium sports team? And I wonder what it would be like to be a fly on the wall at a virus sleepover. That guy who draws the Farside or the one who draws Bizarro could have a field day with this question.

Blueroses's avatar

I swear I saw lizards playing when I was on my vision quest in Utah. I spent an entire afternoon watching them having push-up competitions. One would run up on a flat sunny rock and start bouncing up and down on his forelegs then another would run up, bump the first and start the same behavior.

Now, it might have been food and sleep deprivation, but I’m sure they were doing it for fun. I’m sure I saw them smiling.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

I’m not sure at all. Would you think that amoeba play?

mammal's avatar

Professional soccer stars,

Kardamom's avatar

@WillWorkForChocolate I don’t know if they play, but I got an Xmas card from them this year. It said: We Wish You Amoeba Christmas!

Blueroses's avatar

@Kardamom I had no idea amoeba were Christian! I’ll bet they’re just in it for the gifts. Selfish little beasts.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

@Kardamom Nice! I got one that was listing a bunch of animals, “Wee fish, ewe, a mare, egrets, moose”. It was cute.

Coloma's avatar

My cat walked right up to a young buck in my driveway awhile back, they touched noses, and then…my cat swapped the deer in the face! hahaha

The deer jumped and bucked and the cat shot off like a rocket. Hilarious!

Now when he sees the deer he growls!

Guess that relationship was doomed.

cazzie's avatar

@Coloma has the best animal stories! I’m going wolf ‘hunting’ with my camera this spring in our new neighbourhood. I hope there are pups and that they are playing.

Coloma's avatar


Wow! How cool is that!

Wolves in the neighborhood!

I have a thing for spotting Mountain Lions over this way, I have seen and encountered 3 in the past 10 years. I LOVE the excitement of thinking a cougar is watching me when I am out trapsing around my property and the river. You KNOW they see you, but you don’t see THEM, very often. Masters of stealth!

Aster's avatar

Dentists playing poker.

Coloma's avatar


Are they sharing a tank of nitrous oxide too? That might be fun! lol

Aster's avatar

IDK but their dental assistants sure are. crazy about that cat.

submariner's avatar

CWasp: what part of “yadda yadda yadda” don’t you understand?

crisw: thanks for the links! That answers my question fairly thoroughly.

Thanks also to everyone who provided examples.

To any members of the avian, reptilian, amphibian, piscine, or various invertebrate communities who were offended by my use of “lower”, I apologize.

OpryLeigh's avatar

I imagine mice, gerbils, hamsters and the like are capable of play. I only say that because I remember the hamsters that I had as a child and the various different obstacle courses that were set up for their benefit (in and out of their cages) they seemed to enjoy the challenge and I would say that was a form of play (a bit like hopskotch or a skipping rope in the playground!)

jaytkay's avatar

I imagine mice, gerbils, hamsters and the like are capable of play

Is a hamster wheel play?

Blueroses's avatar

We can only judge “play” based on our anthropomorphic ideals. Maybe the hamster is desperate in one of those concentric circles of hell where escape is possible if he just runs faster….

But that’s also anthropomorphic.

OpryLeigh's avatar

@jaytkay I think it is a form of play.

Kardamom's avatar

@Blueroses That sounds like my last job. Yikes!

Coloma's avatar

My ex husband. lol

YARNLADY's avatar

I’ve seen plants in speeded up films that look like they are playing.

Kardamom's avatar

@YARNLADY They almost look like they’re dancing! Maybe they need a new reality show called Dancing With the Plants. Ha ha

cazzie's avatar

@Kardamom it will be as exciting at the current incarnation… (oh… I made a funny…. ‘carnation’... LOL)

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