Sharing the motivation to play: the use of signals in adult bonobos

Gestures and facial displays are involved in regulating many aspects of mammal social life such as aggression, dominance-subordinate relationships, appeasement and play. Playful activity is an interesting behaviour for examining the role of signals as intentional communication systems. When animals play they perform patterns that are used in other serious contexts. To avoid miscommunication, many species have evolved signals to maintain a playful mood. Bonobos, Pan paniscus, with their flexible social relationships and playful propensity, may represent a good model species to test some hypotheses on adult play signalling. I analysed the potential roles of facial play expressions and solitary play in soliciting and regulating social play and found that adult bonobos used the play face (relaxed open-mouth display) in a selective manner. Play faces were more frequent during social than solitary play and, within social play, polyadic sessions (even though less frequent than dyadic sessions) were characterized by a higher frequency of signals. Following the rule of play intensity matching, play faces were more frequent when the two players matched in age and size (sessions among adults). Moreover, among dyads there was a positive correlation between the frequency of aggressive interactions performed and the frequency of play signals used, thus suggesting that signals are crucial in play negotiations among individuals showing high baseline levels of aggression. Finally, solitary play, especially when it involved pirouettes and somersaults, had an important role in triggering social play. © 2007 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

Gestures and facial displays are involved in regulating many aspects of mammal social life such as aggression, dominance-subordinate relationships, appeasement and play. Playful activity is an interesting behaviour for examining the role of signals as intentional communication systems. When animals play they perform patterns that are used in other serious contexts. To avoid miscommunication, many species have evolved signals to maintain a playful mood. Bonobos, Pan paniscus, with their flexible social relationships and playful propensity, may represent a good model species to test some hypotheses on adult play signalling. I analysed the potential roles of facial play expressions and solitary play in soliciting and regulating social play and found that adult bonobos used the play face (relaxed open-mouth display) in a selective manner. Play faces were more frequent during social than solitary play and, within social play, polyadic sessions (even though less frequent than dyadic sessions) were characterized by a higher frequency of signals. Following the rule of play intensity matching, play faces were more frequent when the two players matched in age and size (sessions among adults). Moreover, among dyads there was a positive correlation between the frequency of aggressive interactions performed and the frequency of play signals used, thus suggesting that signals are crucial in play negotiations among individuals showing high baseline levels of aggression. Finally, solitary play, especially when it involved pirouettes and somersaults, had an important role in triggering social play. © 2007 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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