Scientists Teach Rats How To Drive Tiny Cars, Because Science?

Scientists and the University of Richmond have taught rats how to drive in tiny electric cars. No, really.


Scientists have taught rats how to drive for some reason.

Rats can do many things. They can sniff out cheese at the end of a maze, they can press buttons, recognize people, and do all sorts of crazy things that you wouldn’t think an animal the size of your hand could do. And now we have taught them to drive cars. Tiny, motorized, electric cars.

Researchers at the Lambert Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Richmond taught rats how to drive using the same simple incentive techniques that have been used to teach rats to do basically everything. The neat part is that learning how to drive sort of combines all the other accomplishments of rats into a single, momentous task.First, scientists needed to create a small car that a rat could drive. Steering wheels are a little hard to deal with when you don’t have thumbs, so instead the car has a simplified set of controls that consists of three copper bars. When the rat puts its tiny paws on the copper bar, it completes a circuit that drives the little electric car forward, left, or right. The chassis is made of simple aluminum while the body is actually the discarded plastic remains of a food container that has been repurposed into a ratmobile.

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Driving lessons first involved providing the rats with a Froot Loop whenever they drove anywhere within the small rectangular test track. Then, after they’d mastered the idea of locomotion, targets were placed at various locations around the track. If the rat could drive itself to the target, it got another Froot Loop.

While this impressive display of ratty ingenuity is enough on its own to write a scientific paper, the team at Richmond went a step further and examined the rat’s poop. Trace hormone concentrations revealed that the rats were actually more relaxed after learning how to drive.

The research team posited this might be because rats experience a form of self-satisfaction from learning a new life skill that might help them get a job in the city and maybe move out of their dingy basement apartment in the University’s psych wing. However, a more likely reason is that rats experience the same relaxation that we all do when driving down a highway with the window open on a bright, sunny day.

Rats just want to feel the wind in their fur on the open road. Like we all do.

(via New Scientist)

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