Play, variation in play and the development of socially competent rats

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Studies on laboratory rats (Rattus norvegicus) have revealed that experience with social play in the juvenile period is important for the development of improved social skills, an improvement that appears to be mediated by the prefrontal cortex. But there is much variation in both the frequency with which play occurs and in the complexity of the actions performed among different strains of rats. Is all this variation adaptive in serving play’s critical developmental role? The integrative approach advocated by Tinbergen provides a framework with which to assess such variation. A review of what is known and the inclusion of some novel data suggest that irrespective of the form of the play, rats of all strains converge on the same key experiences, experiences that have been implicated in the development of social skills. The lessons learnt from rats may serve as a guide for broader cross-species comparisons.

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Figures
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    Measures of role reversals during play fighting show (A) the probability that a play fight will include a role reversal and (B) the total number of role reversals that occurred in the ten min play trials for the five strains of rats. Data are derived from B.T. Himmler et al. (2013c) and S.M. Himmler et al. (2014a) and are for males. As females showed the same pattern, in this paper, for simplicity’s sake, the data on males is used to illustrate the patterns.

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    The two measures of role reversals, (A) their probability and (B) their total frequency (see caption to Figure 1) are shown for Long–Evans rats that were housed in same strain quads or mixed strain quads (with two Sprague–Dawley cage mates). Data are derived from S.M. Himmler et al. (2014b).

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    The two measures of role reversals, (A) their probability and (B) their total frequency (see caption for Figure 1), are shown for pairs of Long–Evans rats that were decorticated at birth and for pairs of intact siblings. Data are derived from Pellis et al. (1992b).

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