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Scientists play hide and seek with rats and find they love it so much they giggle!

AFP, September 16, 2019 6:45PM Kids News

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One of the rats playing hide and seek with the scientists. Picture: Reinhold, Sanguinetti-Scheck, Hartmann & Brecht/AFP media_cameraOne of the rats playing hide and seek with the scientists. Picture: Reinhold, Sanguinetti-Scheck, Hartmann & Brecht/AFP

science

Reading level: green

If you see a rat disappearing around a corner one day, try not to freak out — it may just want to play hide and seek with you.

It could even be giggling at the fun of it all.

A group of neuroscientists* in Germany spent several weeks with rats in a small room filled with boxes. Their findings were published in the journal Science in recent days.

The teenage male rodents played hide and seek with the scientists in the 30 sqm room — without even being given food as a reward.

media_cameraThe rats were not given food as a reward, so the scientists could learn about whether they continued to play just for the fun of it.

“When you work a lot with rats over the years, you see how intelligent these animals are, and how social,” co-author Konstantin Hartmann from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, said.

“But it was still very surprising to us to see how well they did.”

Instead of food, the scientists rewarded the rats with physical interaction*.

“They chase our hand, we tickle them from the side, it’s like a back and forth a little bit like how you play with small kittens or puppies,” he said.

The scientists suspect that the rats were motivated not just by this interaction but that they also liked to play for the sake of play itself.

They came to love the game so much that they were often observed making “joyful leaps” (what the Germans called freudensprung) and “ultrasonic giggles” three times above the human audible* range.

Origin Training Friday media_cameraNSW’s Josh Addo-Carr cracks up laughing after rugby league State of Origin training. This laugh was in the audible range, so humans could hear it. Rats, however, have very high-pitched laughs that humans can’t hear. Picture: Brett Costello

Previous work has found rat leaps and giggles to be signs of happiness.

These behaviours often occurred when they found the researchers, or the researchers found them.

The scientists discovered the rats were quick learners.

Over a week or two, the rats learned that starting the game inside a closed box opened remotely meant they were seeking, but starting the game with the box already open meant they were hiding, according to the report.

They got smarter as time went on — learning to revisit spots where humans had previously hidden, and hiding out in opaque* rather than transparent* boxes, the study revealed. They also “playfully rehid” at new locations after they were found.

Scientists know that play and socialising are very important to developing mammals — including humans — but it’s difficult to study what’s going on in a human’s brain while they’re playing. In evolutionary terms, rats are close enough to humans to give scientists some clues about what play does to a human’s brain, by studying a rat’s brain.

media_cameraScientists know that play is important, but it is difficult to study exactly what is going on in a human’s brain when they’re playing freely. Picture: Myka Photography/Tourism Australia

The team attached tiny wires to the rats’ heads that recorded their brain activity, allowing them to identify which individual neurons* were linked to specific game events.

This information could be used for future study about what happens to brain development when play is restricted.

The more we learn about how social rats and mice are, the more human-like they seem, but that then raises difficult questions about whether it’s okay to use them in these and other experiments.

“I think, being aware of the cognitive* abilities of an animal is really important,” said Hartmann, adding it was always important to judge the value of the expected results against the use of animals.

GLOSSARY

  • neuroscientists:
  • interaction: when two or more people or things communicate or react to each other
  • audible: able to be heard
  • opaque: can’t see through it
  • transparent: see through
  • neurons: nerve cells that send information through the body
  • cognitive: to do with thinking; describing the process of perceiving, processing and learning information

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What does freudensprung mean in English?
  2. Why can’t we hear rats laugh?
  3. What do scientists know from earlier studies about rats leaping and giggling?
  4. What did the rats learn a closed box or an open box means?
  5. How did the scientists know what was going on in the rats’ brains?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Create a game
Create a game that you could play with a rat. Write the aim of the game and the rules. Use the information about rats in today’s story to help you.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

2. Extension
“Playing is just about having fun, you don’t get anything else from it.”

Do you agree with this statement? Write a piece of persuasive writing giving your opinion on this. Use examples to make your arguments convincing!

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
Compare and Contrast
A Venn diagram is a great tool for brainstorming and creating a comparison between two or more objects, events, or people. You can use this as a first step to creating an outline for a compare and contrast essay.

Simply draw two (or three) large circles and give each circle a title, reflecting each object, trait, or person you are comparing, in this case a rat and a dog.

Inside the intersection of the two circles (overlapping area), write all the traits that the animals have in common. You will refer to these traits when you compare similar characteristics.

In the areas outside the overlapping section, you will write all of the traits that are specific to that particular animal.

Now that you have completed your diagram, write up the outline (planner) for your essay.

Here is a Dog vs Cat example to help you:

1. Both dogs and cats make great pets.

  • Both animals can be very entertaining
  • Each is loving in its own way
  • Each can live inside or outside the house

2. Both have drawbacks, as well.

  • They shed
  • They can damage property
  • Both can be costly
  • Both require time and attention

3. Cats can be easier to care for.

  • Cat box
  • Can leave for a day

4. Dogs can be better companions.

  • Going to the park
  • Going for walks
  • Will enjoy my company

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you enjoy play or regular school work more? Do you learn more by playing or from doing regular school work?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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