Rat Frees Trapped Cagemate In New Experiment
December 9, 2011

Rat Frees Trapped Cagemate In New Experiment

While being referred to as a rat usually has negative connotations, a new study from the University of Chicago has revealed that rodents could be actuaally be generous and empathetic to their fellow creatures.

According to a Thursday article by David Brown of the Washington Post, researchers at the university were attempting to find out whether or not one rat would release another from "an unpleasantly restrictive cage" if it had the opportunity. The answer, as it turns out, was yes.

As part of the experiment, the scientists "housed rats in pairs so that they got to know each other," Fiona MacRae of the Daily Mail said. "They then placed one of the pair in a small transparent tube inside the cage while the second animal roamed freely around it“¦ The first rat was effectively trapped, but could be released if the second rat used his head to nudge open the tube from the outside."

The free rodent, Brown says, after hearing distress calls from its cage mate, not only learned how to open the cage to free it, but became better and better at it over time. Furthermore, in time it began to free the other rat even if it was not actually reunited with it, and eventually it even began saving at least one treat to share with its fellow companion.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Science Foundation, was published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.

"This is the first evidence of helping behavior triggered by empathy in rats," Jean Decet, a psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Chicago, said in a statement.. "There are a lot of ideas in the literature showing that empathy is not unique to humans, and it has been well demonstrated in apes, but in rodents it was not very clear. We put together in one series of experiments evidence of helping behavior based on empathy in rodents, and that's really the first time it's been seen."

"We are not training these rats in any way," he added. "These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We're not showing them how to open the door, they don't get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it's hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works."

Jeffrey Mogil, a professor in pain studies at McGill University who was not involved in the research, said that the findings went beyond mere empathy and actually illustrated "pro-social behavior."

"There is nothing in it for them except for whatever feeling they get from helping another individual," Peggy Mason -- a neurobiologist who conducted the experiment alongside colleagues Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a graduate student, and researcher Jean Decety -- added in comments made to the Washington Post.


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