Webber, C., Lee, P. 2020. Play in elephants: Wellbeing, welfare or distraction? Animals 10(2), 305.
We explore elephant play behaviour since (a) play has been proposed to represent a potential welfare indicator; and (b) play has been associated with long-term survival in the wild. We categorised play into four types, and investigate both social (gentle, escalated-contact) and non-social (lone-locomotor, exploratory-object) play from observations made on wild (Asian N = 101; African N = 130) and captive (Asian N = 8; African N = 7) elephant calves ranging in age from birth to five years. Social play was the most frequent type of play among immature elephants, accounting for an average of 3%–9% of active time. Non-social play accounted for an additional 1%–11% of time. The most time spent in play was seen in captive Asian calves, particularly at the ages of 1–6 months, while wild African calves spent the least time in play overall, even though they had the greatest number and most diverse range of play partners available. We assessed calf energetics using time spent suckling, resting, moving and independent feeding. Time spent playing was unrelated to time spent suckling but negatively associated with time spent independently feeding. There were no associations with time spent moving or resting. Maternal energy via lactation was unrelated to play early in life, but energy acquired independently may constrain or enable play. Play, while a potential indicator of compromised welfare for many species when absent, can act as a highly stimulating activity for captive elephants in the absence of other forms of arousal.