Animals can do a lot of things you’d never expect them to do, even rodents. Although they don’t seem very smart, they might just impress you! In a recent study, German scientists made a discovery that’s not your average day in the lab: rats can learn to play hide and seek.
It was everyone’s favorite game when they were kids.
Who didn’t love scrambling to find a hiding place while the seeker called out numbers, then yelled, “Ready or not, here I come!”
Well, the rats couldn’t do that, but they were able to learn the basic rules of the game.
When Michael Brecht, a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin, watched some YouTube videos of people playing with pet rodents, he noticed something interesting.
The videos showed that rats could be taught simple games and they loved opportunities to hide. So, he decided to put a one-of-a-kind research project into motion.
The goal was to see if rats could learn a game like hide and seek, which has specific rules and sequences. There are designated hiders and a designated seeker. Past research shows rats can play disorganized games that have no rules (such as wrestling or stealing toys), but nothing had ever been discovered as to how the rodent brain processed a game with these specifics.
So, what’s the point of this whole experiment?
Well, to learn a little bit more about how the rodent brain works and what it’s really capable of. Even more, Brecht hoped the study could demonstrate the mental connection between play behavior and cognitive function.
“There are all these YouTube videos from pet owners that say their animals love to do this,” he says. It has long been known that rats engage in simple forms of play — rough and tumble — but we wanted to know if they could do more complex games, like hide and seek.”
To conduct the experiment, researchers set up a 30-square-meter testing ground.
It contained different obstacles to serve as hiding places. Some were good, such as opaque objects, while others were poor, including transparent boxes.
One at a time, six rats were taught how to play. Each one was put into a lidded box while the human “gamemaster” hid. When they managed to find her, the rats were given treats and gentle pets. Finally, once the rats got the hang of the game, they were allowed to play together.
What the researchers found was the rats not only got the idea down but even switched roles and strategized to find better hiding places.
They passed up the transparent boxes for the opaque ones. What’s more, they really, really loved it.
“They look like they’re having fun, they come running,” said Brecht. “They’re very vocal, they call all the time because they are thrilled about it. But then they hide, they are pretty silent.”
The rats showed indications of understanding the rules of the game as well as being excited about “winning” it.
Researchers also examined the rodents’ brain activity during the game. The hope is to gain a better understanding of how brains process elements like rules, roles, strategy, and play.
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