Targets, tactics, and the open mouth face during play fighting in three species of primates

The play fighting of many mammals involves the nonserious use of behavior patterns derived from serious fighting. A major question of theoretical importance has been that of how, given this overlap in patterns of behavior, the animals can distinguish between playful and nonplayful intent. One proposed solution is that animals use play signals to inform each other about the playful intent of their actions. The most widely reported play signal amongst primates is the open mouth play face. The manner in which this so-called signal functions is based on correlational evidence, with most reports simply noting its presence or absence in a given species. This study involved a detailed video-based analysis of the occurrence of open mouths during the play fighting of three species of primates. One captive troop each of ring-tailed lemurs, black-handed spider monkeys, and patas monkeys was used. By examining all open mouths in the context of the species-typical style of play fighting, several conclusions were empirically verified. 1) Most open mouths occur as a functionally necessary precursor for biting. 2) Some open mouths occur as a defensive threat which deters further contact. 3) The residual open mouths which may function as contact promoting play signals, constituted about 20-25% of all open mouths by the lemurs and patas monkeys, but less than 5% for spider monkeys. These species differences appeared to arise from two causes. Firstly, the spider monkeys used another signal, the head shake, in situations where lemurs and patas monkeys used open mouths. Secondly, the style of play fighting greatly influenced the frequency and duration of open mouths. This was most marked in the face-to-face combat style of patas monkeys. These findings show that comparative studies of the occurrence and function of play signals need to take into account species-typical styles of playful combat. Aggr. Behav. 23:41-57, 1997. © 1997 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

The play fighting of many mammals involves the nonserious use of behavior patterns derived from serious fighting. A major question of theoretical importance has been that of how, given this overlap in patterns of behavior, the animals can distinguish between playful and nonplayful intent. One proposed solution is that animals use play signals to inform each other about the playful intent of their actions. The most widely reported play signal amongst primates is the open mouth play face. The manner in which this so-called signal functions is based on correlational evidence, with most reports simply noting its presence or absence in a given species. This study involved a detailed video-based analysis of the occurrence of open mouths during the play fighting of three species of primates. One captive troop each of ring-tailed lemurs, black-handed spider monkeys, and patas monkeys was used. By examining all open mouths in the context of the species-typical style of play fighting, several conclusions were empirically verified. 1) Most open mouths occur as a functionally necessary precursor for biting. 2) Some open mouths occur as a defensive threat which deters further contact. 3) The residual open mouths which may function as contact promoting play signals, constituted about 20-25% of all open mouths by the lemurs and patas monkeys, but less than 5% for spider monkeys. These species differences appeared to arise from two causes. Firstly, the spider monkeys used another signal, the head shake, in situations where lemurs and patas monkeys used open mouths. Secondly, the style of play fighting greatly influenced the frequency and duration of open mouths. This was most marked in the face-to-face combat style of patas monkeys. These findings show that comparative studies of the occurrence and function of play signals need to take into account species-typical styles of playful combat. Aggr. Behav. 23:41-57, 1997. © 1997 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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