The Road Not Taken: Rodents Rue Bad Decisions

Two rats eatingThe past weekend I switched lines in the grocery store only to regret it a few seconds later when another shopper with an enormous cart got there before me and I had to wait an additional 20 minutes for the cashier to fix a problem with the register. Sound familiar? As far as I know rodents do not shop in the stores that I do but it seems that a rat might have felt the same in my place. Or so say a team of scientists from the University of Minnesota out to study decision-making abilities in rats. 1
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Science Confirms What We’ve Always Suspected: Potato Chips are Irresistible

RatI love potato chips. There’s something very satisfying about the crunch of a good chip. The problem with chips, other than the obvious effect they have on my waistline, is that I can’t eat just one. Neither can my husband, who loves to open a bag of potato chips while I’m preparing dinner! To explain the disappearance of the potato chips, we joke that the chip-eating culprit in our house is not my husband but a giant mouse that has developed a taste for salty snacks.

Recent research presented by Tobias Hoch at a meeting of the American Chemical Society shows that not only do rodents love potato chips but that this attraction may not be due solely to the high ratio of fats and carbohydrates, which is one proposed explanation for the “bet you can’t eat just one” phenomenon. There is something else that makes potato chips irresistible. Continue reading “Science Confirms What We’ve Always Suspected: Potato Chips are Irresistible”

Rats Avatars: A New Twist On Virtual Reality

Imagine playing a simple game in a virtual-reality setting. You move an avatar around a room trying to entice your opponent’s avatar to move closer to you when you are in certain spot. Meanwhile, 12 km away, cameras track your opponent’s movements around an arena that also contains a robotic representation of you. The cameras are telling your opponent’s avatar where to move in your virtual reality setting based on where they move in their actual setting.

Your goal is to score the most points by moving the virtual you into proximity with your opponent’s avatar while you are both at a certain location within the virtual room. If you succeed, you score a point. If you and your opponent get too close anywhere else in the room, your opponent scores a point. Your opponent, however, is not terribly interested in points; your opponent wants to get close to the robotic you because it has snacks. Your opponent is a rat, Continue reading “Rats Avatars: A New Twist On Virtual Reality”

Misunderstood: The Ticklish, Empathetic, Laughing, Problem-Solving, Chocolate-Sharing Rat

Rats are social creatures.

In just a few days, my family will be welcoming some new pets in the form of three young rats. We have been planning for them for about a month now, and my kids and I are getting excited (the jury is still out on how my husband or our cat feels).  The response we get when we share the news with friends and family members has been wildly varying. Some can barely repress their shuddering as they ask why on earth would we want rats?? Others will go on and on about the cool rats they have owned or known and share humorous anecdotes about their furry friends.

The difference in opinion is striking. One group sees these creatures as horrid, filthy, vicious, disease-carrying vermin; while the other sees them as intelligent, social, affectionate companions. As a scientist in the lab, my experience with rats was limited to comparing the sequences of rat and human nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (they’re not all that different it turns out), but the more I read, the more I begin to think that rats have been terribly misunderstood. Mind you, I don’t mean that I have been reading Rat Fancier or some other rat enthusiast publication (not that these are bad sources of information). No, I am a scientist and when I want information, I go to the literature, and what the scientific literature says about rats is really quite fascinating. Continue reading “Misunderstood: The Ticklish, Empathetic, Laughing, Problem-Solving, Chocolate-Sharing Rat”