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Freed Rats Share Chocolate

December 9, 2011 by staff 

Freed Rats Share Chocolate, Rat catchers may need to up their game. The distress shown by a trapped rat will encourage another rat to spring the trap and free the rodent. The finding suggests the common pest shows a level of empathic behaviour previously thought unique to primates.

Inbal Ben-Am* Bartal and Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago housed 60 rats in pairs. Two weeks later, one of each pair was placed in a plastic trap that could be opened if the other nudged the door with its snout.

The free rats showed signs of distress at their cage-mates’ predicament, says Bartal. After 12 days of practice, 77 per cent of them learned how to open the door and liberate the trapped rat. In control experiments featuring an empty trap, or a trap containing a toy mouse, just 12 per cent of rats learned how to open the door. “They weren’t interested in these restrainers at all, so they didn’t learn how to open them,” says Bartal.

The rescuers did not seem to have an ulterior motive for freeing their trapped cage-mate: they continued to do so even when the experimental set-up was changed so that the two rats would not be able to benefit from touching and interacting after the liberation. Moreover, the plaintive calls of the trapped rat were too infrequent to suggest that the free rat acted simply to get some peace and quiet.

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