Plenty of animal species are far more intelligent than many of us give them credit for. Even rats, despite their small size and similarly small brains, have an incredible level of intelligence. Anyone who has ever owned a pet rat will know that they can be taught a variety of tricks and can be very resourceful little critters, and scientists have recently performed a fascinating experiment to test the limits of rat learning abilities.
As reported in New Scientist, scientists at the University of Richmond in Virginia decided to make small plastic cars and see if they could teach rats how to drive them.
The rats responded better than expected; by the end of their training, they were racing around an enclosure and carefully controlling their direction to collect sweet treats.
Similar experiments have been performed in the past, but they were never quite as ambitious as this one.
To begin, the researchers made a mini, rat-sized car out of a simple plastic food container. It was fitted with its own steering system, comprised of three copper bars that were used for changing the direction of the vehicle and making it go forward.
As the rats stood on the bars, they made an electrical charge that acted as an accelerator for the vehicle and moved it around.
Next, the scientists put some sweet-smelling Froot Loop cereal pieces around an enclosure and placed the rat car inside, training the clever rodents to race around and collect their treats.
They introduced various obstacles along the way to test the rats’ maneuvering and problem-solving skills, and they were amazed to see that the little animals continued to become better drivers over time.
Lead author of the study, Kelly Lambert, revealed, “They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward.” She later added “I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think.”
Interestingly, the results varied based on the living conditions of the rats involved. Those that lived in boring lab conditions needed longer to get to grips with the car than those that are used to stimulation and have more things to do in their usual homes.
Six female rats and 11 males were involved in the experiment, and all 17 of them were able to learn to drive. They even seemed to have fun with it.
The scientists proved this by testing their feces for levels of certain stress hormones. They found that, after driving, the feces of the rats contained more dehydroepiandrosterone, a de-stressing hormone that signifies a positive and relaxed mindset.
So what can we actually take from this experiment?
Well, for now, there’s not enough data to really draw any major conclusions, but in the future, with more complex driving tests and further experimentation, researchers could use the findings of this study and others to see how certain conditions like Parkinson’s disease affect an individual’s motor skills.
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