Sexual and aggressive play fighting of sibling Richardson’s ground squirrels

play fighting in many species of squirrels can involve sexual play and aggressive play, both of which can lead to wrestling which appears superficially similar. Such convergence can make scoring of the relative frequencies of these two types of play difficult and can lead to the mistaken conclusion that they grade into one another. In this study, both staged laboratory encounters between sibling pairs and spontaneous encounters between siblings in free-living litters of Richardson’s ground squirrels (Spermophilus richardsonii) were videotaped. Frame-by-frame analyses using the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation were employed to record the correlated movements of attack and defense by the partners and to reveal the body areas targeted during each play bout. Whereas sexual play was organized around access to the rump, aggressive play was organized around the shoulders. Although in most cases the defender’s tactics blocked access to the respective target, when contact did occur, it involved mounting in sexual play and nosing or biting in aggressive play. Eighty-six percent of play fights could be unambiguously categorized as either sexual or aggressive play. Of these, the majority (?80%) involved sexual play. The sex of the participants did not affect the frequency of aggressive play, but in sexual play, males initiated more attacks than females. Once initiated, each form of play fighting remained distinct – if a bout began as sexual play, it would end as sexual play. Furthermore, a counterattack following sexual play was significantly more likely to be sexual than aggressive, and vice versa for counterattacks following aggressive play. Therefore, all the evidence suggested that the two forms of play fighting were not intermixed in Richardson’s ground squirrels. Aggr. Behav. 27:323-337, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

play fighting in many species of squirrels can involve sexual play and aggressive play, both of which can lead to wrestling which appears superficially similar. Such convergence can make scoring of the relative frequencies of these two types of play difficult and can lead to the mistaken conclusion that they grade into one another. In this study, both staged laboratory encounters between sibling pairs and spontaneous encounters between siblings in free-living litters of Richardson’s ground squirrels (Spermophilus richardsonii) were videotaped. Frame-by-frame analyses using the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation were employed to record the correlated movements of attack and defense by the partners and to reveal the body areas targeted during each play bout. Whereas sexual play was organized around access to the rump, aggressive play was organized around the shoulders. Although in most cases the defender’s tactics blocked access to the respective target, when contact did occur, it involved mounting in sexual play and nosing or biting in aggressive play. Eighty-six percent of play fights could be unambiguously categorized as either sexual or aggressive play. Of these, the majority (?80%) involved sexual play. The sex of the participants did not affect the frequency of aggressive play, but in sexual play, males initiated more attacks than females. Once initiated, each form of play fighting remained distinct – if a bout began as sexual play, it would end as sexual play. Furthermore, a counterattack following sexual play was significantly more likely to be sexual than aggressive, and vice versa for counterattacks following aggressive play. Therefore, all the evidence suggested that the two forms of play fighting were not intermixed in Richardson’s ground squirrels. Aggr. Behav. 27:323-337, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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