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An adult Gelada monkey plays with a juvenile. A new special issue of Adaptive Behavior examines the evolution and origin of play via mathematical and computational approaches. Credit: Elisabetta Palagi

Special Collection Explores Origin and Evolution of Play

December 16, 2015

KNOXVILLE—Research on the evolution and function of play at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) has culminated in a special issue of the journal Adaptive Behavior. The papers represent the first systematic use of computational and mathematical models to investigate the theoretical and empirical origins of play.

In a series of meetings from 2011 to 2013, the NIMBioS Working Group on Play, Evolution and Sociality brought together mathematicians, anthropologists, zoologists, neuroscientists, ecologists, psychologists and other top experts to examine play as a window into cognitive evolution and the rules of sociality.

Until the Working Group was established, the field lacked a mathematical and computational approaches for understanding how play evolves. Using mathematical tools, the group aimed to uncover factors predicting the dynamics, occurrence and trajectory of play in the animal kingdom, as well as explore the ecological, psychological and life history factors that facilitate and maintain play.

The six papers in the special issue include:

  • Modeling play: distinguishing between origins and current functions by Sergio M. Pellis, Gordon M. Burghardt, Elisabetta Palagi, and Marc Mangel
  • The evolution of social play by learning to cooperate by Sabine Durand and Jeffrey C. Schank
  • To play or not to play? That's a resource abundance question by Jeremy Auerbach, Andrew R Kanarek, and Gordon M Burghardt
  • State-dependent behavioral theory and the evolution of play by Nicholas Grunloh and Marc Mangel
  • Evolving the tactics of play fighting: insights from simulating the "keep away game" in rats by Heather C. Bell, Greg D. Bell, Jeffrey A. Schank, and Sergio M. Pellis
  • Evolutionary models for the retention of adult-adult social play in primates: The roles of diet and other factors associated with resource acquisition by Brian C. O'Meara, Kerrie Lewis Graham, Sergio M. Pellis, and Gordon M. Burghardt

The full special issue can be found at


The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis is an NSF-supported center that brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences.

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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