Animal behaviour has long been the subject of scientific inquiry. Studying the way animals evolve their behaviour can inform researchers regarding the process of natural selection and can lead to a deeper understanding of organic biology in general. Two such behaviours explored in this paper are territorial and play behaviours. These instincts are critical to animal sustainability and persistence. Studying behviours in these spectrums can provide keen insight into both the animals and the ecological systems they inhabit.
How the Behaviour Improves Animals’ Fitness
Animals often cover large distances during their daily routines. Per Raven & Johnson (2014), the circumference of the range of their travels is called the animal’s “home range” (p. 556). Inside the home range are scarce resources, such as food, favorable habitation, access to potential mates, etc. Multiple animals may inhabit this home range, but each individual utilizes a narrow and very specific portion of it solely, in a similar way in which humans might own a house and property. For animals, the process of defending one’s home territory, called “territoriality,” typically involves physical aggression and/or provocation (Raven & Johnson, 2014, p. 556). In order to effectively defend one’s territory, animals must be in peak fitness, since physically inferior animals will not be able to withstand the intrusions of other animals. The successful defense of territory is vastly important to the animal, since if the individual is forced from the area, that individual will be barred from access to resources for survival. Deprived of food, habitat, and potential mates, the animal will be taken out of the gene pool of natural selection. The maintenance of territory certainly improves the animal’s fitness because of the vast stretches of land typically travelled by the animal, as does the second behaviour discussed here, i.e., play.
Per Bateson (2017), playful animal behaviours are not just random activities, but are instinctive urges that have the ability to increase physical fitness: “[play has] a real benefit for the individual, enhancing neural processing, physical fitness, behavioural coordination, and behavioural flexibility” (N.p.). Bateson (2017) noted that individuals who play more than others have a distinctive advantage over those that do not, especially amongst the young (N.p.). The reason for this is that not only does play increase fitness, but it mimics and practices real world skills the individual will need later in maturity. For example, tigers who play-fight with one another as cubs are actually learning skills they will need when catching prey later in life. The same goes for bear cubs and other natural predators. Herbivores, like deer, play for fitness and for practice as well. Though they do not play to train how to hunt, like predators, they do practices evasive techniques and increase their physical skills and fitness for times where they will need a quick escape.
How the Animal Might Have Acquired This Behaviour
Territoriality has always been part of animal evolution. Through natural selection, those animals who were not able to defend their territory were excluded from resources, habitat, and potential mates, and were therefore removed from the gene pool. Thus, this became an acquired instinct through animal evolution. Animals learn very early in life to defend what is theirs, or it will be taken from them. Consider the case of the finch who gives birth to a brood of eggs. Clearly, the finch needs resources, such as food and nesting materials, in order to sustain the brood, and those resources should be nearby so that the bird does not have to leave the nest unoccupied for long. The finch chooses the territory based on the availability and proximity of those resources. The problem is that other animals also crave these scarce resources and will try to take the finch’s habitat and/or its eggs or young hatchlings for food. The finch learns to defend its territory through provocative displays of physicality, such as flapping of the wings, or auditory displays that unnerve and intimidate potential transgressors into its territory. The finches that did not learn these territorial behaviours had their eggs and nest taken and/or destroyed, and thus they were more than likely removed from the gene pool.
Similar to territorial behaviours, playful behaviours are also evolutionary in nature. Per Bateson, Bateson, & Martin (2013), parental care that encouraged play in young animals earned those animals advantages over others: “If such care allowed the young animal to play and exercise, those that did so would be at an advantage over those that did not. A variety of benefits could have followed and driven further changes in the course of evolution … [leading] to greater cognitive ability with more elaborately organised brains” (p. 124). Clearly, we see playful activities in domestic pets, such as cats, dogs, but rarely do we see the evolutionary instinct behind those actions. It is more than likely that those playful behaviours found in cats and dogs were learned through natural selection across the span of generations of the animals’ development as wild species. Those cats and dogs who played and exercised were better able to catch prey and sustain themselves than those who did not practice those behaviours. Play is not limited to domestic animals either. Diverse species such as elk, buffalos, tigers, canaries, hawks, salmon, bears, and even turtles all exhibit playful activities as part of their behaviouristic systems (Bekoff, 2001, p. 625), showing that play is a universal quality common to most animal species as evolved behaviour through natural selection.
- Bateson, P. (2017). Behaviour, development and evolution. Open Book Publishers.
- Bateson, P, Bateson, P.P., & Martin, P. (2013). Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation.
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- Bekoff, M. (2001). The evolution of animal play, emotions, and social morality: on science,
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