University of Richmond | Kelly Lambert

Researchers Taught Rats To Drive Tiny Cars For Legit Science Reasons

Ryan Ford 23 Oct 2019

Researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia recently reported a breakthrough nobody was expecting: they successfully taught rats to drive tiny cars, New Scientist reported.

Yes, we've seen a rat drive a chef in a kid's movie, but now real rats are driving tiny cars built just for them.

Yes, literal rats, the squeaky rodents blamed for spreading the Black Death around Europe, can drive tiny cars.

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Why on Earth would scientists try to teach rats to drive? Well, according to Dr. Kelly Lambert, a behavioral neuroscience professor at the University of Richmond, it was more of a test to see just how much rats are capable of learning.

She said that she and her colleagues wondered if rats could take some of the simpler skills they know rats can learn, like recognizing objects, pressing bars, and navigating mazes, and put them together to perform more complex and sophisticated tasks.

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So, of course, they gave the rats tiny cars.

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Here's how it works: Inside the car, constructed out of a plastic food container on wheels with an aluminum floor, there are three copper bars.

When the rat stands on the aluminum floor and grips one of the copper bars, it completes a circuit, which makes the little car move forward. Gripping the bar on the left, in the middle, or on the right makes it move in that direction.

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The rats in the experiment were given targets to try to reach by driving, in the form of Froot Loops.

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Which seems like pretty good incentive to me.

Not only did the rats pick up on how the car worked, but they were successful enough at reaching their food that the research team started placing the food at increasingly distant points around the testing ground.

"They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward," Lambert said.

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As the researchers taught the rats to drive, they also took some other measurements.

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Throughout the whole process, the team examined the rats' droppings for indicators of stress levels. They saw clear signs that, as the rats got better at driving and mastered the skill, their stress levels went down.

It was also noteworthy that the rats in control of cars experienced less stress than rats riding along in remote-controlled cars.

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So, the researchers managed to teach rats to drive, is that really a big deal?

Well, it's certainly an adorable experiment, and kind of shocking in its own way. Lambert says it's a good demonstration of just how smart rats are and the neuroplasticity of their brains.

"I do believe rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think," she said.

The next steps will involve more challenging models and examining how the rats learned to drive, why it reduced stress levels, and which areas of the brain were involved.

h/t: New Scientist

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