Strong Competition Does Not Always Predict Play Asymmetry: The Case of South American Sea Lions (Otaria flavescens)

Although play fighting has been studied for over a century in both human and non-human animals, quantitative data on marine mammals are still scarce. Here, we investigated play fighting in South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens), one of the most sexually dimorphic species with an extreme polygynous mating system, high levels of both intra- and inter-sexual competition. All these features make South American sea lions a good model species to test some predictions on play fighting. Our results indicate play is restricted to juveniles, being inhibited among adults, and as to be expected in a species that shows a high degree of sexual dimorphism, it is mainly expressed in males. Even though playful interactions were punctuated by competitive behaviours, animals played in a highly symmetric way and were able to adjust their competitive playful interactions in a flexible manner and so reduce the risk of escalation to a minimum level. They were highly selective in their choice of playmates by limiting the number of players per session and playing more with age-matched companions and friends. All these factors taken together are probably at the basis of the low risk of escalation recorded during the study. This result is predictive of a high ability and motivation of these animals to engage in play behaviour which can have a possible role not only in the acquisition of dominance status, but also in establishing and maintaining social relationships, an unexpected role in a so highly competitive species. © 2017 Blackwell Verlag GmbH

Although play fighting has been studied for over a century in both human and non-human animals, quantitative data on marine mammals are still scarce. Here, we investigated play fighting in South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens), one of the most sexually dimorphic species with an extreme polygynous mating system, high levels of both intra- and inter-sexual competition. All these features make South American sea lions a good model species to test some predictions on play fighting. Our results indicate play is restricted to juveniles, being inhibited among adults, and as to be expected in a species that shows a high degree of sexual dimorphism, it is mainly expressed in males. Even though playful interactions were punctuated by competitive behaviours, animals played in a highly symmetric way and were able to adjust their competitive playful interactions in a flexible manner and so reduce the risk of escalation to a minimum level. They were highly selective in their choice of playmates by limiting the number of players per session and playing more with age-matched companions and friends. All these factors taken together are probably at the basis of the low risk of escalation recorded during the study. This result is predictive of a high ability and motivation of these animals to engage in play behaviour which can have a possible role not only in the acquisition of dominance status, but also in establishing and maintaining social relationships, an unexpected role in a so highly competitive species. © 2017 Blackwell Verlag GmbH

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