Bonobos, compared to chimpanzees, are highly motivated to play as adults. Therefore, it is interesting to compare the two species at earlier developmental stages to determine how and when these differences arise. We measured and compared some play parameters between the two species including frequency, number of partners (solitary, dyadic, and polyadic play), session length, and escalation into overt aggression. Since solitary play has a role in developing cognitive and physical skills, it is not surprising that chimpanzees and bonobos share similar developmental trajectories in the motivation to engage in this activity. The striking divergence in play developmental pathways emerged for social play. Infants of the two species showed comparable social play levels, which began to diverge during the juvenile period, a 'timing hotspot' for play development. Compared to chimpanzees, social play sessions in juvenile bonobos escalated less frequently into overt aggression, lasted longer, and frequently involved more than two partners concurrently (polyadic play). In this view, play fighting in juvenile bonobos seems to maintain a cooperative mood, whereas in juvenile chimpanzees it acquires more competitive elements. The retention of juvenile traits into adulthood typical of bonobos can be due to a developmental delay in social inhibition. Our findings show that the divergence of play ontogenetic pathways between the two Pan species and the relative emergence of play neotenic traits in bonobos can be detected before individuals reach sexual maturity. The high play motivation showed by adult bonobos compared to chimpanzees is probably the result of a long developmental process, rooted in the delicate transitional phase, which leads subjects from infancy to juvenility.
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