A week or so ago, I posted on the subject of cats, and how humans could learn a thing or two about what love really is from the furry, sometimes annoying felines. Now it turns out that even rodents can teach us how to be better people.
The journal Science is reporting today that recent studies at the University of Chicago prove rats have empathy for the suffering of fellow rats and will act to alleviate it. Researchers Jean Decety, Peggy Mason, and Inbal Bartal placed pairs of unrelated rats in cages for 2 weeks to get to know each other. They then put one of the rodents into a small plastic tube inside the cage. The tube was fitted with a door that would open when it was bumped from the outside. Not surprisingly, the trapped rats gave out ultrasonic distress calls, which, it turned out, were responded to by their free rat buddies.
In the studies, three-quarters of rats with trapped cagemates learned how to open the door. Only one rat in six without a trapped cagemate learned to do this, showing that rats whose friends were trapped were motivated to learn how to free them.
Moreover, each free rat who learned to open the door kept liberating its trapped cagemate again and again, as many times as its buddy was trapped, which researchers felt ruled out mere curiosity as the motivator of the free rats. The rats freed their trapped friend even when the trapped animal exited into a separate cage, showing that the free rat wasn't only acting to get itself the reward of companionship.
And the rats freed trapped cagemates even when they had the option of bumping open an identical container to obtain chocolate, their favorite treat, demonstrating that their motivation to help was at least as strong as their desire for self gratification with food. In fact, half of the time they even shared their chocolate, leaving some for the trapped rat.
So, even RATS seem to be able to set aside their own selfish desires, show empathy for the suffering of others, and help one of their own kind in distress. I wonder when people will catch on.