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I just saw a cat playing and teasing a wounded bird for minutes, and I immediately started to wonder what the evolutionary rationale were. After all, it seems eating the prey as soon as possible should be the optimal strategy (as you can’t lose what you have already eaten.).

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The cat is probably just having fun. So, we could ask "What is the evolutionary benefit for having fun?" Through play, animal learn (Fagen 1974, Spinka et al. 2001, Pellegrini 2007, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, 2008). This is particularly true for juvenile. Adults play is not uncommon though and might follow from the same principles (Bekoff and Byers, 1998). Note that playing is also associated with reduced stress in adult cats (Bekoff and Byers, 1998).

Whether or not, the cat actually learn much through playing with its poor little prey (it probably learns to be a better hunter) is not really relevant. Playful behaviour, as a general behaviour may have been selected for. There would be no need for "playful behaviour with a pink string" to have actually ever been under selection. Many behaviours have evolved as side-effects of evolution of related behaviours.

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    $\begingroup$ If the cat doesn’t learn much by this “playfulness”, I imagine a strong negative selection would render this specific instance of risking resources a non-behavior very soon. And your answer begs the question, why a general “playfulness” trait would evolve, and what “playfulness” even is. $\endgroup$ – HappyFace Jun 15 '19 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ Why doesn’t a dog do this kind of behavior? I find dogs satisfy your very broad “through play, an animal learns” criterion. And the cat also doesn’t play with random stuff (you don’t see cats playing with sticks or fire or ...). $\endgroup$ – HappyFace Jun 15 '19 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ @HappyFace I imagine a strong negative selection would render this specific instance of risking resources [..] You have too selectionist a view of evolution. You might want to have a lookd at this post or maybe this post. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Jun 15 '19 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Remi.b can you add some references and clarify the answer a bit? I mean, are you sure that this behaviour can indeed be described as "having fun"? Can it be something else (analysing the prey, for example)? If so, can you also link some articles that say talk about positive effects of "having fun" (which sounds quite reasonable)? $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Jun 17 '19 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG I added some citations (and some texts as I learned by going through these papers)! $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Jun 17 '19 at 13:13

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