acta ethologica

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 181–188 | Cite as

Social play in wild brown bears of varying age-sex class

  • Melanie Clapham
  • John Kitchin
Short Communication


Social play behaviour is a well-described phenomenon, almost ubiquitous among mammals. Despite its prevalence, social play takes several forms and may vary in function across species. For solitary species, the function of play outside of the family group remains unclear. Here, we describe the motor patterns of play among non-littermate wild brown bears Ursus arctos of different age-sex class. Play was documented during a time of abundant food availability in three different scenarios: play among non-littermate subadults, play among non-littermate cubs, and play among a ‘group’ of bears of different age and sex class. We used a previously described behavioural ethogram to recognise play. Play followed typical motor patterns and postures expressed by bears during play-fighting: relaxed face, puckered-lip, ears partially flattened to crescent, wrestling, jaw gaping, play-biting, paw-swatting, and lunging. No vocalisations were conducted during play bouts. Older bears displayed ‘self-handicapping’ and ‘role-reversal’ in the play postures they selected when playing with younger bears, suggesting that tactics vary according to age class and dominance ranking. Playing likely allows for the evaluation of conspecifics in a non-aggressive way during times of reduced competition and could also relieve stress in complex social situations.


Behaviour Learning Play-fighting Social play Ursus arctos 



Research was funded by a Mitacs Elevate Fellowship and the Brown Bear Research Network. We would like to thank Dean and Kathy Wyatt for continued financial and logistical support and all the staff at Knight Inlet Lodge for field support and assistance. Thanks to Edward Savage and Hayley Shephard for providing additional visual documentation of play observations. Special thanks to Chris Darimont and three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions regarding this manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

All observations conducted adhered to ethical standards involving wild animals in accordance with the University of Victoria Animal Care Committee (#2014–031(1)).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg and ISPA 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Applied Conservation Science Lab, Department of GeographyUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.Brown Bear Research NetworkSookeCanada
  3. 3.Centre for Wildlife ConservationUniversity of CumbriaAmblesideUK

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