Rats as heroes. Really!

“rats might be capable of heroic acts in the cause of other rats”

When I began this blog I hadn’t considered heroism as anything but a human (or possibly primate) trait. Sure, I knew there were plenty of animals touted as heroes. On the fiction side dogs have been the stars of top rated TV shows in decades past. I’m talking Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (new book: Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean @2011).  They saved their masters week after week. And animated animal heroes have been around the best part of a century. Many, such as Mickey Mouse and his friends, even became a part of our popular culture. The animated hero list now takes in ants, mice, dogs, woodpeckers, roadrunners, magpies, crows, ducks, spiders, horses, pigs, flying squirrels, moose, monkeys, owls, to name a few.

I’ve also always been aware there exists no shortage of real-life dog heroes. Other animals—animals such as dolphins, horses, elephants, etc.—also make headlines regularly. But in my mind animal heroism was different from human heroism for it occurred in the service of humans because of a genetic protective instinct.

Now a science story that challenges this assumption has popped up. And has received major headline coverage. One reason for all the attention is that the test subject turns out to be the rat. The findings have caused me to consider the idea that rats might be capable of heroic acts in the cause of other rats. No, this isn’t about Remy the rat in Ratatouille, or any other scripted rat—this is about a live rat. Or more accurately, rats, since this is more about the species. I will qualify that further and say lab rats. Here’s the gist of the findings.

Researchers Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason report that when they placed free rats in an enclosure with cagemates trapped inside a small container, the free rats learned to liberate the trapped rats. The rats did this even when they were not rewarded with the company of the trapped rat afterwards. The experimenters then introduced a second factor into their trials to learn more about the nature of this behavior. Knowing rats love chocolate, they provided the rats a source of chocolate locked in a second container similar to that holding the trapped rat. The free rat then had the option of opening the chocolate container and eating the chocolate before freeing, or not freeing, the trapped rat. They found the rats typically opened both containers and shared the chocolate.

While their experiments, which are much more elaborately described in the full text of their paper published today in Science (see below for the citation and a link to the abstract) are far from conclusive yet, their findings have pertinence to this blog because the researchers concluded: “… rats behave pro-socially in response to a conspecific’s distress, providing strong evidence for biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior.” The relevance? It seems to me this opens the door (if I might use a pun) to rats’ capability of acting as heroes under the right circumstances. And if rats can do it, why not dogs, pigs, and flying squirrels? Hmm, I suppose that opens things up a bit here.

Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats
Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal; Decety, Jean; Mason, Peggy. Science 334. 6061 (Dec 09, 2011): 1427-1430.

See also
Empathy and the Laws of Affect
Panksepp, Jaak. Science 334. 6061 (Dec 09, 2011): 1358-1359.

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