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Catch me if you can

14 July 2010

A new study has found that gorillas react to games of tag the same way that humans would - by trying to maintain their advantage when they’ve got the upper hand.  The research, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, investigates the way that gorillas respond to unequal social situations during ‘tag’ chases and play fights.

If one gorilla hits another during a play fight, the gorilla who dealt the blow will tend to run away from the other one.  The fact that the miscreants tend to run away suggests that they are sensitive to the fact that their actions result in an unfair competitive advantage.  The gorillas then try to maintain this advantage by running away, allowing them to avoid a reciprocal whack from their victim.

Previous research has shown that humans will usually try to maintain their competitive advantage when they get the upper hand in an unequal social situation, but this is the first time that non-human behaviour in this context has been analysed in a natural setting rather than the laboratory.

As the authors point out, “animals experiencing unequal situations in the form of social play are better equipped to conform their actions to social imperatives in more serious situations”.  Learning how to react in unequal situations such as playfights and games of chase could provide animals and humans alike with vital survival skills – and this research seems to show that humans are not the only species who can act opportunistically when they have the upper hand.