Research Good News


A look at research and creative activity at UTK. . .
Compiled by Research Information Services of the University of Tennessee Knoxville Office of Research.


August 8, 1996 - Volume 2, Number 10.

In his 1950 book "Homo Ludens," the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described play as activity which "supersedes a purely biological, physical activity." Work with captive animals has shown that encouraging them to "play" enriches their well-being in captivity. Non-bird reptiles have mostly been left out of this loop. The psychological well-being of this group has been little studied, and it has been generally assumed that these animals were incapable of play.

In a recent issue of "Zoo Biology," Dr. Gordon Burghardt, UTK Professor of Psychology, reports on his observations of play in an aquatic turtle in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Not only did the turtle play, but the extent and nature of its activity raised questions about whether play can really be seen as essentially "useless" activity.

Pigface, who has since died, was a large soft-shelled African turtle acquired by the Zoo in 1940. In the 1980s, when he began to claw his own skin, keepers provided Pigface with objects such as balls, sticks, and hoses in an attempt to distract him from self-mutilating behavior. They observed that he seemed to spend a large amount of his time in what appeared to be play behavior. Over several years, he also decreased his self-mutilating behaviors.

In 1991, Dr. Burghardt videotaped the turtle's behavior as part of his continuing research on play and the well-being of animals in captivity. Analysis of the videotape showed that the turtle was active about 67.7% of the time. For 20.7% of the total time it played, interacting with the objects in its tank. The first level of general activity is unusually high, especially for a turtle, and the level of "play" high even for mammals, which typically spend 1-10% of their time in play.

Many of the turtle's "play" behaviors, like biting and pushing, were those he might exhibit if he were hunting for food in his natural environment. Dr. Burghardt suggests that play cannot be defined as "useless" activity, but rather as part of a continuum of life-sustaining, stimulating activities. Pigface, whose captive environment deprived him of stimulation and of contact with cospecies, had reacted with self-mutilation until given objects to play with.

Dr. Burghardt concludes that, contrary to popular belief, some reptiles may have innate needs for stimulation and activity. He encourages those who work with reptiles to not only provide them with "toys," but to experiment with their environments -- and to look beyond mere physical appearance when assessing their well-being.