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Much to learn from kindly rats

CHICAGO: As charges of greed and self-interest fly in these hyper-partisan political times, humans might do well to look to rats for lessons in kindness.

A University of Chicago experiment to discover how much empathy rats have for each other had some surprising results, which were to be published yesterday in the journal Science.

In laboratory studies, a rat was restrained in a small cage that could be opened only from the outside. A second rat, seeing the predicament of the trapped rat, immediately began looking for a way to free its fellow animal.

After about six days, the free rat would accidentally open the door. It quickly learnt how to deliberately open it, leading to what strongly resembled a triumphal celebration between the two rats.

Even when exposed to chocolate chips, the free rat would not be deterred from its mission.

As simple as it sounds, the experiment is being hailed as a new paradigm that will help scientists trace the evolution of emotion in mammals.

”This study shows the roots of human empathy didn’t just appear but evolved,” said Jeffrey Mogil, a researcher at McGill University in Canada, who has done similar studies on mice but was not involved with this one.

The research team first paired rats of the same gender for three weeks. Then they put one in a small, Plexiglas cage, locked by a door that could only be opened from the outside.

By means the researchers are not sure of, the caged rat seemed to communicate its distress to the freed rat, and the freed rat sprang into action.

”The free rat jumps on the restraining cage immediately, pushing it, biting at it, touching its nose and whiskers through the openings in the restraining cage with those of the trapped rat,” Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology who worked on the project, said.

”Clearly it wants to help out the trapped rat,” she said.

Source: The Chicago Tribune