Why Gorillas Play Tag: To Learn Social Etiquette and to Settle Scores

By Andrew Moseman | July 14, 2010 9:51 am

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 [Discovery News].

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” [The Guardian].

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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Video: Davila Ross et. al.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • Chris the Canadian

    We needed a 3 year study to come to this conclusion? Mammals in general, when young, practice different things by ‘playing’ that will become useful to them as they get older. Lion cubs biting and wrestling learn how to kill prey this way. So great apes play tag to learn how to function in a group and learn pecking orders and also learn different tactics for mating or food or territorial disputes later in life should come as no surprise and should be obvious to even the most casual observers.

    it should also be noted that the animals are simply having fun too!!! the traits they are learning are not being learned consiously. they are learned through trial and error and repetition.

  • http://www.nicky510.com Crow

    And tag can lead to more involved games in which you strike with an object. But the key similarity is a chase afterward …

    http://www.nicky510.com/comic/do-i-get-another-choice/

  • Jennifer Angela

    Reminds me a little bit of dating. Adults (and nowadays teenagers, too) play simple dating games following simple rules (thus the whole procedure might be seen as somehow comparable to “tag”) to hopefully do better later on within real relationships… in order to explore social boundaries (when dating it is also about discovering the limits and limitations of individuals of the opposite sex)… just like those young gorillas… and develop further socially.

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