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Lifeguard Rodents: Rats Will Try to Save Drowning Friends

May 13, 2015 09:06 PM EDT
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If you were to see someone floundering in the water, you'd likely dive in after them. That seems a very human behavior, where concern for your compatriots can often be put before all else. However, a new study has revealed that even rats can be selfless, sacrificing time and even food to save a neighbor.

At first glance, that may not sound all that impressive. After all, what's time or treats compared to another life? However, it's important to remember that unlike humans, rodents aren't raised in an environment where morals and kindness are taught since birth. In a world where neighbors are constantly competing for food and other resources, selflessness even sounds like a bad idea - something that could get you quickly killed.

However, according to a study recently published in the journal Animal Cognition, a great many lab rats didn't seem to get that memo.

A research team lead by study author Nobuya Sato, of Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan, set up a series of three experiments to see just how selfless rats can be.

In a specially designed cage, Sato's team placed one lab rat in a pool of water, where it struggled to stay afloat. A second rat, perfectly safe, was then placed in a cage directly adjacent to its 'drowning' neighbor. The cage was designed so that the soaked rat could only gain access to a dry and safe area if its cagemate opened a door for it.

Not only did the dry rats quickly learn how to open the door when a neighbor was floundering, but they also showed very little interest in the door when their neighbor was fine. (Watch a movie of the rats in action here.)

Interestingly, when a rat who had once been the victim of this scenario found themselves as the savior, they were the quickest to lend a helping hand. More surprising still, even when simultaneously presented with the option to save their buddy or open a separate door a get a treat, the dry rats almost always chose the 'good Samaritan' route.

"Our findings suggest that rats can behave prosocially and that helper rats may be motivated by empathy-like feelings towards their distressed cagemate," Sato explained in a statement.

He went on to add that studies like this one can help experts understand the roots of prosocial behavior. It may be that they are not entirely based on morals, and have a stronger evolutionary drive.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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