In this video from the PBS series NATURE, a gang of juvenile snow monkeys plays King of the Mountain. Play fighting is how young monkeys test their strengths and weaknesses, sorting out a delicate balance of power.
Snow Monkeys, like many animal species, tend to be social by nature. They rely on each other for survival, especially during the colder months, when huddling together to stay warm is essential. Year round, the snow monkeys live cooperatively, whether in raising newborns, or in protecting the group from outside threats. Although snow monkeys are naturally social, their behavior must be refined so that it benefits the group as a whole. Just like with humans, shaping social behavior begins at an early age.
Learning to play with other snow monkeys helps integrate the juveniles into adult society. As the juveniles begin to interact and share play time together, they simultaneously receive an education on how best to play in a group—essentially how to get along and act appropriately—in preparation for their interactions as adults. Playfulness turns curiosity into active experimentation, allowing juveniles to have adventures which strengthen both their knowledge of their environment and their physical capabilities. It also teaches them how not to behave—especially around some of the more quiet-loving elders.
While playtime can teach lessons on proper, respectful behavior, it is can also be used to test the waters of aggression. Play fighting is a normal, common aspect of playtime. Although aggression in adults is better spent on protecting the entire group, these early forays into sparring can benefit the social structure. Not only do they introduce the juveniles to the skills needed to engage in defense tactics, but they also produce a finer tuned understanding of the social hierarchy, which serves to maintain the organization of the troop. Fight winners are often the stronger or more intelligent, and more suited to lead, therefore justifying their ascension in rank following a victory.
In addition to helping sort out the hierarchy at a young age, fighting, play fighting and friendly behavior also helps bond juveniles together, creating certain relationships that are stronger than others. Fights produce allies, and positive interactions produces friendships. All are necessary in training the juveniles to respect and benefit each other as they grow into adult members of a well-functioning group system. The skills they hone during playtime will enable them to reach their potential and also educate their own offspring, who hold the future survival of the troop in their paws.
Funder:Major support for NATURE is provided by the Arnhold Family, in Memory of Clarisse Arnhold, the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, and the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation. Support is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS.