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
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"
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.