Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Rats Are Decent Little Souls

Posted by | December 13, 2011

The more we learn about animals, the more complex and interesting is the behavior they exhibit. My faithful mutt-from-the-pound, a dog named Buster Brown, impresses me from time to time with complex behaviors aimed at getting what he wants out of me. Most people who live with animals can tell you a tale or two of diabolical ­– or thoughtful – animal behavior they’ve witnessed.

But even knowing all that, a recent study on lab rats took me by surprise. The research makes it clear that rats empathize with one another and will actively work to help one another.

Here’s the scoop that was recently published in the prestigious journal Science. The work was done by Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago with the help of colleagues.

Pet Rat (public domain image)

Imagine two rats in a cage, rats that have lived together and thus know each other. The scientists took one rat and trapped it in a Plexiglas tube. The trapped rat didn’t like that, enough so it would make a sound to signal its distress.

The other rat, the one that wasn’t trapped, would scurry over to the plastic tube, biting it and interacting with the trapped rat through small openings in the tube.

The tube had its complexities. Part of it was a trigger that would open the door to the tube, releasing the trapped rat. At first the free rat came on that trigger only by accident, but it would learn the trick and release the trapped rat quickly after it understood the scheme. (The free rat would do all this only for a trapped friend, so to speak, not for a toy rat in the tube.)

You might think the free rat did all the work involved in freeing its companion because it wanted its playmate for selfish reasons. To test that possibility, the researchers also set up the tube so that it released the trapped rat to another cage. Even under those conditions, the free rat would still work to aid the trapped one – which seems to be pretty altruistic behavior.

Next the scientists researched just how strongly those altruistic feelings were in the free rat. They did that by putting two clear plastic traps in a cage. One held the trapped rat, the other held chocolate chips. (Yup, I guess rats like a nice chocolate high as much as we do.)

The free rat in the cage would work to open both traps. In doing so, it meant the free rat would have to share the chocolate with the formerly trapped rat.

That behavior is awfully impressive. Some humans, after all, might not release a trapped comrade until after they had consumed all of the chocolate to be had (at least if it was the super-dark, good stuff).

But the impressive behavior shown by a rat is just that – a behavior. It’s still impossible to really know what the free rat was feeling or thinking.

“I think it’s extremely unlikely that the rat has the same conscious experience (of decision making) that we do,” Mason said to National Public Radio.

But it’s also awfully clear that rats are social, empathetic, and even self-sacrificing little individuals. That’s a far cry from the image we have of rats that lies behind our calling someone we detest “a rat.”

Scientists will now repeat the same study elsewhere to see if they get the same results and start to expand on the work that’s been done. One point of research may be to test how the free rat in the scenario would respond if the trapped rat were a stranger, not a familiar cage-mate.

It wasn’t so long ago that scientists assumed only primates had complex emotions and were capable of the sorts of behaviors seen in the rat study. McGill University’s Jeffrey Mogil has done studies on mice and is impressed by the recent findings about rats. But he says we shouldn’t be surprised to find complex and empathetic behaviors in animals other than primates.

“Behaviors have to come from somewhere,” he said to National Public Radio. “And so it would be almost absurd to expect not to see some sort of simpler form of human sociabilities in other animals.”