Rats just might be smarter than we give them credit for! Why are we saying that? Well, because a team of researchers was able to train them to drive a small car. The team was led by Kelly Lambert of the University of Richmond.
The team wondered if rats could have been trained for carrying out tasks that are a tad bit more sophisticated as opposed to finding their way in a maze or recognizing objects. As it turns out, they are actually capable of driving a small makeshift car, given that there is a Froot Loop close by.
The car was created using a clear food container. Wheels were attached to it, and three copper bars served the purpose of a steering wheel. The car was placed in a rectangular track that featured aluminum floor. When the rats took hold of the copper bars and stood on the floor, it moved the contraption. The three bars, upon being pressed individually, could also be used for turning the car left, right, or staying in the center lane. The researchers have so far been able to train a total of 17 rats to drive the small car. The rats would receive a Froot Loop each time they touched the copper bars, and the car moved forward.
In order to put their driving skills to the test, Froot Loops were placed at different placed further down the track. The rats were able to navigate and make use of new steering patterns for reaching their rewards. The team found that learning to drive allowed the rats to become calm. This was determined by measuring the levels of cortisol – the known culprit for stress – and dehydroepiandrosterone that relieves stress. It was further determined that the ratio of dehydroepiandrosterone to cortisol increased once the rats had been trained to drive.
Lambert has already ascertained during previous works that rats become less stressed after completing tasks that can be identified as tough. Lambert said that this could be the same feeling that we humans feel after mastering a craft. Lambert said, ‘In humans, we call this self-efficacy or agency. 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.’