Rats learn how to drive tiny cars in order to collect food

Rats are going for joyrides in tiny cars, suggesting they are much smarter than experts have previously thought. Rodents have learned how to climb in a pint-sized vehicle, grip a pair of handle bars with their paws and propel a car towards food at the end of a track

On the rodent again! Scientists teach rats how to drive tiny cars to collect food – suggesting creatures are more intelligent than previously thought

  • Scientists used food rewards to train rats how to drive tiny cars down a track
  • Rats have to stand on the car floor and place paws on handle bars to move 
  • Also found that learning how to drive relieved stress in the rats
  • Experts believe these creatures relieve stress after learning a new skill 

Rats are going for joyrides in tiny cars, suggesting they are much smarter than experts have previously thought.

The rodents have been taught how to climb in a pint-sized vehicle, grip a pair of handle bars with their paws and propel a car towards food at the end of a track.

The team found that the specimens were able to ‘navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward’.

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Rats are going for joyrides in tiny cars, suggesting they are much smarter than experts have previously thought. Rodents have learned how to climb in a pint-sized vehicle, grip a pair of handle bars with their paws and propel a car towards food at the end of a track

The experiment was conducted by a team at the University of Richmond, who designed the car to operate once the rats completed an electrical circuit, New Scientist reported.

The tiny parts were designed using a clear plastic food container on wheels, an aluminium floor and three copper handle bars that act like a steering wheel.

In order for the car to run properly, the rodents would have to interact with different parts – stand on the floor and grip the copper bars with their paws.

The team taught six female and 11 male rats how to drive the car on tracks that were about 13 feet in size.

And they received a reward of fruit loops when they touched the steering wheel and drove the car to the end of the arena.

Not only did this experiment suggest rats are more intelligent than previously believed, the team found that these little rides actually relaxed them.

After measuring the rodent’s cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone levels, it was found that dehydroepiandrosterone increased when they were behind the wheel – this hormone counteracts stress.

The tiny parts were designed using a clear plastic food container on wheels, an aluminium floor and three copper handle bars that act like a steering wheel

In order for the car to run properly, the rodents would have to interact with different parts – stand on the floor and grip the copper bars with their paws

The tiny parts were designed using a clear plastic food container on wheels, an aluminium floor and three copper handle bars that act like a steering wheel. In order for the car to run properly, the rodents would have to interact with different parts – stand on the floor and grip the copper bars with their paws

Kelly Lambert, a researcher in the study and part of the department of psychology at the University of Richmond, believes these findings confirm her previous theory.

Lambert had suggested that rats become less stressed after mastering a difficult task, as they gain a sort of satisfaction from perfecting a new skill, she told New Scientist.

The team found that the rats that drove themselves around were less stressed, compared to those who sat in the passenger seat of a remote-controlled car.

HOW SMART ARE RATS?

Rats are considered highly social animals that become attached to each other, love their families and can bond with their human owners.

It is believed they are capable of empathy and can recognise and react to pain in others. 

A study by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University, found when rats are tickled they make chirping sounds that are similar to human laughter.

‘[Y]oung rats have a marvellous sense of fun’, said Dr Panksepp, adding that the rodents bonded with the human tickler and liked to be ticked as much as possible.

Contrary to their reputation they are also very clean animals and groom themselves regularly. 

Rats are highly social animals that become attached to each other, love their families and can bond with their human owners

Rats are highly social animals that become attached to each other, love their families and can bond with their human owners

In September last year researchers from New York University found when rats are frightened in the day, the fear centres in their brains are re-activated during sleep – potentially helping to strengthen memories.

Researchers say that rats store maps of what they experience in both of their hippocampi – two curved structures inside the brain.

Different places that the rat experiences are processed by different groups of neurons that activate together in sequence as a rat runs around a maze.

After exploring an area, these sequences have been observed replaying as the rat sleeps – comparable to dreaming of the paths they’d taken when they were awake.

Researchers believe that this allows memories to be stored in the long term.

The most recent research by the University of St Andrew’s found rats help each other out in return for favours in a similar way to humans.

The rodents were found to groom food-providers more often than partners who had refused to help.

In addition, common Norway rats offered more food to those who cleaned them, researchers found. 

The discovery that rats can drive cars demonstrates the ‘neuroplasticity’ of their brains, said Lambert, which is the ability to respond flexibly to novel challenges. 

‘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,’ she told New Scientist.

Following this experiment, Lambert believes she can develop even more complex mazes for these creatures in order to study neuropsychiatric conditions.