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Playfighting in Captive Red-Necked Wallabies, Macropus Rufogriseus Banksianus

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The structure and development of playfighting in captive red-necked wallabies, Macropus rufogriseus banksianus, was studied over a 2.5 year period. An ethogram of 21 acts was established. Playfighting involved acts from agonistic, affiliative and sexual contexts. The sequential organisation of acts was highly non-random in both intra- and inter-individual structure. Sequence analysis grouped acts into 3 subsystems : those associated with high (central act: Spar) and low (central act: Paw) intensity bouts of fighting; and those associated with initiation, termination or interbout behaviour. Wallabies playfought at varying intensities ranging from high intensity Sparring matches to low intensity bouts of Pawing coupled with frequent and prolonged periods of affiliative interactions. A third type of playfighting, refusal playfights, was of short duration and was probably failed playfight initiations. There was considerable repetition of acts and sequences of acts, and play-partners interacted in a highly mutual manner. Some acts (Skip, side and chest Autogroom, and Shake) were performed in an apparently exaggerated manner and may have had a communicative function. There was noticable restraint used in the performance of Kicking during playfights compared to that seen in serious fights. The goal of playfighting was either to gain unrestricted grooming access to an opponent's throat or to force an opponent off-balance causing it to retreat. Males of any age playfought more often than females; playfighting in females was very rare. Wallabies engaged in playfights soon after they first began to leave their mother's pouch. Three phases of playfight development in males were identified. The first was an early phase of vigorous play that ended about the time wallabies were weaned. The second phase commenced after weaning and continued until after sexual maturity. It was a transitional period of increasing instability in playfight relations manifested as shorter playfights and more refusal playfights. The final phase was characterised by low intensity playfighting and was typical of older adult males. The design of playfighting and age/sex differences in its performance were used to consider the relative importance of motor training, socialisation and assessment of fighting skills as benefits of playfighting. Most evidence favours motor training as the most important benefit, particularly for high intensity playfighting. For low intensity playfights motor training was not completely satisfactory as the main benefit. It was possible that low intensity playfights gave a different type of motor training than high intensity playfights. Developmental changes in the type of playfighting performed also suggest that either the motor training benefits a wallaby required from play changes with age, or there were age-related changes in the function of playfighting. Neither socialisation or assessment of fighting skills seem to be major benefits of playfighting in the wallabies. The similarities between playfighting in the wallabies and play in better studied taxa (i.e. eutherians), and between wallaby playfighting and the descriptions given in the macropodid literature of prolonged, resource-unrelated serious fights are considered. It was concluded that at least some of the fights of macropodids reported in the literature were misclassed playfights.

Affiliations: 1: School of Biological Science, University of New South Wales, P.O. Box 1, Kensington, New South Wales, Australia, 2033


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