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PLoS One. 2010 Oct 7;5(10):e13218. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013218.

Stranger to familiar: wild strepsirhines manage xenophobia by playing.

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  • 1Centro Interdipartimentale Museo di Storia Naturale e del Territorio, Universit√† di Pisa, Pisa, Italy.


The power of play in limiting xenophobia is a well-known phenomenon in humans. Yet, the evidence in social animals remains meager. Here, we aim to determine whether play promotes social tolerance toward strangers in one of the most basal group of primates, the strepsirhines. We observed two groups of wild lemurs (Propithecus verreauxi, Verreaux's sifaka) during the mating season. Data were also collected on nine visiting, outgroup males. We compared the distribution of play, grooming, and aggressive interactions across three conditions: OUT (resident/outgroup interactions), IN (resident/resident interactions in presence of outgroups) and BL-IN (baseline of resident/resident interactions in absence of outgroups). Play frequency between males was higher in OUT than in IN and BL-IN conditions; whereas, grooming was more frequent in IN than in OUT and BL-IN conditions. Aggression rates between resident and outgroup males were significantly higher than those between residents. However, aggressions between resident and outgroup males significantly decreased after the first play session and became comparable with resident-resident aggression levels. The presence of strangers in a well-established group implies the onset of novel social circumstances, which sifaka males cope with by two different tactics: grooming with ingroup males and playing with outgroup ones. The grooming peak, concurrently with the visit of outgroups, probably represents a social shield adopted by resident males to make their pre-existing affiliation more evident to the stranger "audience". Being mostly restricted to unfamiliar males, adult play in sifaka appears to have a role in managing new social situations more than in maintaining old relationships. In particular, our results indicate not only that play is the interface between strangers but also that it has a specific function in reducing xenophobia. In conclusion, play appears to be an ice-breaker mechanism in the critical process that "upgrades" an individual from stranger to familiar.

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