Play: “Any pleasurable activity carried on for its own sake without reference to ulterior purpose or future satisfactions”
– Dictionary of Education
I’ve been thinking a lot about play recently, as part of my thesis will involve trawling through theories of learning through play and the significance that play has in the lives of humans. Play is highly important in the development of the brain; it stimulates the growth and “wiring” of brain cells and aids emotional processing. It allows children to learn about the world and allows adults to be creative, curious and can relieve stress (yep, believe it or not, adults can and do play too!). This got me thinking about play in other species, then I remembered a remarkable video I saw a few years ago:
These are bottlenose dolphins playing with toys they have manufactured themselves. They make the bubble through the blowhole on the top of their head which they then make into a ring shape. The thing that has amazed researchers and particularly those interested in theory of mind is the intentionality of the dolphins: The dolphins appear to make this ring just for fun.
Watching this video again reminded me of something I heard Dr Luke Rendell speak about in Durham at the beginning of this year. He said a researcher had captured footage of a bottlenose dolphin and a humpback whale playing together. The rational, anti-anthropomorphical side of me was all like “NO WAY STOP ROMANTICISING IT THEY WERE PROBABLY TRYING TO EAT EACH OTHER” but I have since looked into it and it seems like, well… It really looks like they are just playing. Which is remarkable. Watch the video and see what you think for yourself…
As others have noted before me, it really doesn’t seem feasible that this is anything other than a bit of fun. The dolphin keeps going back to the whale repeatedly so he/she is hardly showing signs of fleeing a potential predator. It was also suggested that the whale was trying to help the dolphin out, perhaps because the whale mistook the dolphin for an infant of her own species (and we don’t even know if the whale was a female), which could have triggered a maternal response in the whale to “save” it. But the dolphin was not injured or acting in any way distressed, and it would not explain why the dolphin cooperated with the whale.
What is undeniable is that dolphins and whales and other cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises) are incredibly intelligent and we are only just beginning to discover what they are capable of.