Friday, May 16, 2014

Etiquette and Gorilla Tactics

We aren't talking guerilla warfare here, but gorilla play-fair!"

To Learn Social Etiquette and to Settle Scores, Gorillas Play a Simple Children's Game of “Tag”

There may be no game simpler than tag. To play, you need nothing but a few friends and some energy. In fact, tag is so easy to play that it reaches other primate species: Gorillas like to play, too.

Marina Davila Ross and colleagues spent three years watching and filming gorilla colonies at Germany and Swiss zoos for a study now out in Biology Letters. They shot footage of 21 different young gorillas goofing around in a game that resembles human children playing tag.

Like human tag, one gorilla runs up to another and taps, hits, or outright punches the second. The hitter then usually runs away, attempting to avoid being hit back. Davila Ross and her colleagues also noticed that, like kids, the gorillas would reverse roles, so sometimes the first hitter would be the tagger, and vice versa. All African great apes appear to play tag, and younger apes play it much more often than their elders. Tree-dwelling orangutans likely also play a similar game, but not on the ground, according to Davila Ross in Discovery News.
"That was incredibly rude and your father and I will not tolerate poor manners around here any longer!"  Young gorillas need the opportunities to learn valuable social skills and gorilla “etiquette” which will stand them in good stead in their later lives. 
Gorillas games, like their analogues in human kids’ games, would seem to play a role in social development and learning to play nice with each other. Gorillas strike each other pretty hard during play, Davila Ross says, but they’re careful not to strike too hard.

The game is thought to prepare gorillas for conflicts that might arise over food or mates. “This kind of playful behaviour lets them test their group members and learn what the borders are,” she added. “How far you can go with an individual is important for social interactions later in life.
Not all gorillas have an easy time learning the social skills they need to get along in a group. Case in point; Patrick... A 430-pound silverback male gorilla living in Dallas for 18 years, who made headlines in 2013. 'Sexist' gorilla being kicked out of Dallas Zoo," wrote the New York Daily News; "Male Dallas Zoo gorilla to get therapy for sexist attitude," claimed Reuters. But Patrick's not sexist, he just doesn't like the company of other gorillas. He's underscored his preference for solitude by nipping or biting the females. So Patrick was moved to the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina.  Hand-reared as an infant, the large silverback gorilla, was simply having a harder time than most in mastering the basics of "gorilla etiquette." 
Davila Ross argues that gorilla tag is even more revealing than that. Those who are lower on the social ladder tend to be the instigators of the game, trying to get a leg up or an ego boost from besting a gorilla with more social status. Thus, she argues, the gorillas are aware of social inequities, and the competition of playing tag teaches them how to deal with unfair situations by seizing a competitive advantage, like smacking your friend and then running away.

It remains unknown to what extent unequal play itself gives animals a more competitive edge,” the scientists write. But while further research will attack that question, one thing is clear: Humans probably wouldn’t fare well in an inter-species game of tag, as we wouldn’t describe the force with which they strike one another as 'playful.

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