19 Jun 2018

Research aims to unlock mystery of kea play

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:38 pm on 19 June 2018
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Photo: supply

The kea, one of New Zealand’s very own living dinosaurs, may laugh.

That’s what University of Canterbury animal behaviour lecturer doctor Ximena Nelson thinks and she plans to find out with her new research.

The idea for the research was spawned by observations that kea play when they hear a “warble” call.

When kea hear the warble call they do a dance, Dr Nelson says.

“When they’re alone and you play the warble call they’ll just start dancing, which is really fun to watch. So this kind of suggests that hearing that call makes them feel happy.”

Apes have long been recognised as exhibiting behaviour akin to laughter. The purpose of this research is to find out if non-mammalian creatures also laugh.

If the research can prove that kea experience laughter, or happiness, then there will be strong evidence to say that so too did dinosaurs.

“If a kea can do it, then that means that possibly this ability to have this positive contagion…is a very ancient trait which would have evolved at the time of the dinosaur,” Dr Nelson says.

They will establish this is by using a comparative psychological test called an optimism bias experiment.

They will train the birds with two cubes, one a half the size of the other. When the bird goes to the big cube it is rewarded but not when it goes to the smaller one.

“They learn pretty quickly to go to the big cube and always go to the big cube. What happens is that after training we give them a cube which is intermediate in size. Do they approach that cube with a glass half empty approach, or a glass half full approach?

“And what we can do is manipulate that by playing them this warble call or any other call…and see if that makes them feel more optimistic.”

They will also test hormones in their excrement to measure the effects of the stimulus.

Other factors they will manipulate and measure will be the effect of weather.

“Human’s feel happier when the sun is out, which I know today because the sun’s out for the first time in a month.”

And there is a very specific reason why kea have been chosen for this experiment.

“It’s quite common to see grumpy seagulls, not to see them playing around and having fun,” says Dr Nelson. 

Kea are “really unusual” in that they exhibit a lot of time in play, unlike most animals. Play in other species is evident almost entirely in juveniles who are learning skills to help them later in life, skills of survival.

“Kea males and females play and they play spontaneously. They play together, they don’t need juveniles, they play in courtship, they play in the air, on the ground. They toss pebbles…and watch them land in the carpark below.

“And play is a dangerous thing to be doing, actually. It’s costly with energy, you’re not concentrating on any predators around you so you’re at risk of being attacked. So it’s a bit of a conundrum why any animal at all would play.”

Ximena Nelson’s research is funded by a grant from The Templeton World Charity Foundation in the Bahamas.

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