Cordoni, G., Ciarcelluti, G., Pasqualotto, A. et al. 2023. Is it for real? Structural differences between play and real fighting in adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). American Journal of Primatology 85(9), e23537.

In primates, as well as in other mammals, play fighting (PF) is a complex form of playful activity that is structurally similar to real fighting (RF) and may also be used in a competitive way. Here, we verify the structural key differences that can distinguish PF from RF in adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). We collected 962 h of video recording on 30 adult individuals belonging to four chimpanzee groups (Mona Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Spain; La Vallée des Singes and ZooParc de Beauval, France). We applied different indices—two of which were borrowed from the ecological measures of biodiversity—to test for structural differences between PF (345 sessions) and RF (461 sessions) in the levels of behavior repetition (Repeatability of Same Behavior Index, RSBI), distribution uniformity (Pielou Index, J), variability (Shannon Index, H′) and, symmetry (i.e., reciprocal exchange of offensive/defensive behaviors; Asymmetry Index, AI). Moreover, we compared the session duration between PF and RF. We found that duration and RSBI were higher in PF than RF while AI was higher in RF than PF. No difference was found between J and H′. Interestingly, both females and males maintained similar ranking positions (determined via Normalized David’s scores) in RF and PF. Our study indicates that session duration, behavior repetition, and symmetry can be distinctive structural key features of PF whereas dominance role-reversal, behavior variability, and distribution uniformity were not. PF in adult chimpanzees may have elements of serious contexts (e.g., absence of role-reversal as in RF) which is in line with the view that play is a blended, multifunctional behavior deriving from the re-combination of different behavioral systems. Our findings highlight the need to investigate play structure and manifestation in a nuanced way to better understand the actual motivation that underlies what appears to be play.