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Animals at Play Premieres Sun 28 Jul on BBC Two



Around the planet, animals play all sorts of group game: from dolphins that play catch, to hyena games of tug-of-war. Scientists are now discovering that playing together can provide animals with all sorts of surprising benefits. This film uncovers the secrets behind group games and the astonishing benefits animals gain from them.

Juvenile Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas play high-speed games of chase that help to co-ordinate their growing bodies. The adults prefer something more sophisticated – games of catch the seaweed. As well as giving their big brains a work-out, it’s thought to help the pod unite and maintain strong social bonds.

For some animals, group play can lead to friendships that last a lifetime. To cope with the challenges of living in large societies, one of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee, uses play to work out who they can trust within the troop.

In a field experiment, a troop of chacma baboons is given a selection of new toys to play with. This test sheds light on an age-old question that surrounds human behaviour: are males and females biologically programmed to play in different ways, or are the differences that we see a result of social influences from parents and peers? The results are striking: the male baboons go for the active toys like the trucks, while the females go for the dolls, suggesting that there is an innate component to play.

In animal species governed by a strict hierarchy, group play is the one occasion when those rigid social barriers can be broken down. Spotted hyenas live in one of the most brutal societies in the animal kingdom. New research is finding that play can offer a moment of respite for them. Scientists think it may be vitally important for the survival of the clan, uniting all of its members.

In the mountains of New Zealand, scientists have noticed that with flocks of kea parrots, playful antics appear to be contagious – where one plays, the others follow. But how do they communicate their intention to play? Their secret could lie in their ‘play call’, which encourages other nearby parrots to join in with the fun and games. It can allow keas to flit from flock to flock and co-exist peacefully.

Airdate: Sunday 28 July 2019 from 8.00pm-9.00pm on BBC TWO

Season 1 Episode 1 (of 2)