Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rats Might Not Be Such Rats after All, Say Scientists

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rats Might Not Be Such Rats after All, Say Scientists

Article excerpt

Are animals more human than we thought? Or is it humans who are more animal-like?

Scientists are moving toward a startling conclusion: humans can no longer claim that they are the only ones with an elevated sense of morality. For instance, studies have found that chimpanzees will give food to one another when given the opportunity. So will dogs.

Scientists are learning that prosocial behavior, that is helping others with no direct personal benefit for oneself, is far more common than previously imagined in the animal kingdom. Now, we can include another animal in the growing club of creatures that appear to be motivated by morality: rats.

New research work by Cristina Marquez and Marta Moita at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon studies the prosocial behavior of rats. Their research, which appears this week in Cell Press, adds to the growing field of research on animal morality.

In order to measure rats' prosocial inclinations, Dr. Marquez and Dr. Moita sought to answer a question. If given the opportunity, would a rat give food to another rat, with no cost or benefit to itself?

To find out, the researchers created a double T-maze with two rats inside. One rat was assigned to be the "helper" and the other the "partner." The helper had to decide whether or not to help the partner get food.

By tapping the "nose port" on one door, the helper would get a food pellet for itself. By tapping a port on another door, a pellet would be dispensed to both the helper and the partner. Automation allowed the researchers to ensure findings with minimal human interference.

The researchers found that, 70 percent of the time, the helper would tap the second door, dispensing food to both rats. Only one out of the 15 rats studied would consistently make selfish choices, said Marquez. …

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