I tweeted the other day about a topic we talked about in class. Do insects play? We know mammals do, but does it require a complex brain like ours to have the ability to toy with the world around us for the sole purpose of just playing? I proposed the question… and Maggie Fearn responded, then my brother Sam joined.

Lily: Do insects play? (thinking about instinct, survival, biological makeup, nervous system, the brain)

Maggie Fearn – definitely insects play. I had a caterpillar land on me under an oak tree. it stood on its hind legs and looked at me, then caterpillared away from me then stopped and looked back over its shoulder, cueing me to follow it with my finger, which I did. it went on for ages….. bees, hoverflies & dragonflies visit me regularly, flying past for a good look…. ants are great at moving things …. got to got o eat now, but I’m sure there are more examples on their way!

Lily Holloway – Haha great maggie thanks, those behaviours u mentioned, how do we know that is playing? Because we could say instinct of survival tells them to be curious and wary, but is this perceived as play just because we imply movements of our own onto other animals?

Sam Holloway – I’d say this insect has a playful streak (make sure you watch the video to the end for the payoff):


Darwin Beetle fights his way to a female one – wait for it.

Maggie Fearn – how much of human play behaviour isn’t about instinct and survival, Lily?

Lily Holloway – Mm u got me! I think we assume that because an insect isn’t running for its life then its playing. But what if it just doesn’t feel you’re a threat so its want to fight or flight isn’t required. The nature of its characteristics are presumed to be playful because we see the same movement in humans. Apparently according to a fellow classmate, insects don’t feel pain. How would they know this?

Lily Holloway – haha bro that’s brilliant, so harsh though! why would you work so hard to find you mate then get her preggars and then try to kill her? isn’t that a bit backwards?

Sam Holloway – I suppose the human equivalent of this would be pretty horrific

Sam Holloway – Maggie, I’m sure the caterpillar looked cute… but their eyes – until they go into metamorphosis – are so basic they can only detect if it is light or dark, they have no more vision than a jellyfish. Insect brains are called ‘ganglia’, and have more in common with the thought processing of advanced robots than say a cheetah or a human. Ants moving things is less about fun and more about work. Although, insects generally are obviously instinctively very curious. As for human behaviour, there are many examples of human play behaviour that isn’t DIRECTLY about basic instinct and survival. For example, adults obsessively playing computer games/taking drugs/skydiving/racing motorbikes/binge drinking, etc at the expense of socialising/sleeping/eating/having sex, etc…. As a species, we can be a pretty silly bunch, and it often comes down to being relatively self-aware, hedonistic and cynically minded.

Maggie Fearn – I wish I had the vision of a jellyfish! some of them have 24 eyes ( and several brains) – they have 360 degree vision. they are so sensitive to touch and are dynamically responsive to their environment. whther the caterpillar could actually see me or not is absolutely not the point. it knew I was there. and what has cute got to do with anything?

Lily Holloway – Haha I love this debate. I agree that we as humans have ‘playful’ behaviours that we do that are not for survival purposes, but the adrenaline junkie or just the plain “junkie’ needs a satisfaction of an urge/need of some sort. This satisfying for pleasure and relief could be related to the instinctive behaviour of needing endorphins to lower levels cortisol. This is a survival instinct because high levels of cortisol can KILL YA

Sam Holloway – Ha, I’m gonna set up a Facebook group called INVERTEBRATE DEBATE! Most jellyfish have just one eye, called ocelli – that do not form images but can detect where the sun is – but turns out you are totally right about the 24 ‘eyes’ of the Box… Jellyfish, I never knew they could see in colour… Caterpillars actually have 12 eyes – 6 pairs of ocelli which detect changes in light, but cannot see like a human eye, and many have fake ornate eyes. LITTLE KNOWN FACT: i read a bit of trivia last year that some iguanas have a third eye on top of their head, small ones that can detect the shadow of swooping birds of prey. Well, I thought the caterpillar sounded pretty cute. Our cat has a lot in common with a caterpillar/jellyfish, her vision is rubbish and she can’t for the life of her play with a ball and string.

How will we really know whether they play or not?Play is a vital part of survival because its not only about using the imagination and the satisfaction of needs, its learning about whats around you and experimenting, problem solving and testing yourself and others. Is it the underpinning of the development in every breathing and thinking creature? Take a look at this sweet video of a lady bug pushing around tiny coloured balls –


If any one has any opinions on the topic, please comment!

Lily x