African elephants are often admired as imposing, graceful creatures ... but it takes them a few years to grow into that. Young tuskers look more like this:
[Via Latest Sightings. Full video below.]
These wrestling pachyderms were filmed recently in South Africa's Addo Elephant Park by tourist Thys Pretorius. "We were standing still at a dam in Addo just watching the elephants bathing and playing around," Pretorius explained to Latest Sightings. "Suddenly my eye caught a boisterous young calf trying to climb on top of another sibling. All was going well but then the next moment he underestimated his push off the ground and took a roll right off the other youngster."

This kind of playful behaviour is common amongst African elephants, and it's not reserved for the youngsters. Both male and female herd members engage in various forms of play well into their adult lives – but it's the function or purpose behind these playful antics that we still don't fully understand. In an attempt to figure out what all the trunk wrestling and mock charging is really about, Professor Phyllis Lee and Dr. Cynthia Moss spent 35 years studying a group of African elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park.

Having watched the elephants develop from birth to adulthood, the researchers were able to conclude that play represents a "potentially enriching social and physical activity for elephants, but also one with energetic costs and other risks". It seems that the most playful calves have a better chance of coping with stresses later in life – a hypothesis that's backed up by other researchers trying to unravel the mysteries of animal play behaviour. 

Behavioural ecologist Lynda Sharpe believes that when young animals play they are prepping their brains to deal with potentially life-threatening situations later in life. While studying meerkats in the Kalahari (yeah, we know they're a little different to elephants), Sharpe couldn't confirm that playful behaviour helped to strengthen social bonds or prepare these animals for combat, but she does give credence to the "stress" explanation.

"You see when a baby animal experiences stress, its brain changes so that it's subsequently less sensitive to stress hormones," Sharpe writes for Scientific American. "This means that, as an adult, the critter recovers more rapidly after a hair-raising experience." Play behaviour triggers the same neurochemical responses as stress, so it's possible that when young animals are playing they also sharpen their response to stressful situations.

This reasoning is echoed by Lee and Moss, but the researchers also add that male and female elephants tend to play for different reasons. According to their observations, males use play as a casual way to introduce themselves to other herd members, but also to suss out the competition and distinguish friend from foe. Female elephants play to sustain their "social, protective and leadership roles within families".

There are still no conclusive answers about why elephants (or any animals) play. At the risk of crossing into anthropomorphic territory, maybe they just enjoy it. I mean, look at these two ...