Weasels are among the most playful of mammals. Although not as well known for playing as are their cousins the otters, weasels play often, even as adults (Figure 2.7). Some examples of weasels playing with human companions are given in Chapter 1, but that may not be the same thing as weasels playing among themselves.
Play is more difficult to define than it is to recognize. It involves normal behaviors but in exaggerated form, in unnatural combinations, and often in
unfinished or jumbled sequences (Fagen 1981). Youngsters play more than adults, and many components of play are behaviors that youngsters will need to use as adults. Play in herbivores often involves running and other escape behaviors, and play in carnivores often involves imitation prey capture (Fagen 1981). Playing carnivores often crouch and pounce on and wrestle with siblings or inanimate objects. A leaf blowing past can stimulate a young weasel to pounce on it, wrap its body around it, and hold it with all four legs, biting it with a mock-intensive kill bite. Adult weasels will bounce off logs, tree trunks, or other objects, twisting and contorting, nearly turning themselves inside out. Their movements are quick and intense, but then they will suddenly stop, standing absolutely stock-still. Then, without any warning or perceptible reason, the bounces and contortions start again. Although intent and emotion are hard to understand in another animal, we have the distinct feeling that a weasel playing is deep-down enjoying itself. Developing the ability to zig zag and turn on a dime could also have survival value to a weasel being pursued by a raptor or owl (see Figure 11.6).
Byers and his colleagues (1995; 1998) have recently offered a good evolutionary explanation of play in young animals. The nervous system of a mammal continues to develop after birth. The growth of axons and the synaptic links between them is greatest during the juvenile period, when play is most intense. Those axons and synapses that are used most are retained to adulthood, and the rest are lost. Playing youngsters need not perform adult behaviors perfectly in form or sequence; they gain an advantage if they simply perform the adult behaviors that will be most important to them. Play is not practice, but it is critical to the full development of a young mammal's nervous system. Adult mammals play significantly less often than do young, and those that do tend to be among the more intelligent species. So the frequent reports of adult weasels playing with each other or with their young may be a sign of their intelligence.
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