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Researchers Teach Rats to Drive Little Cars

Credit: University of Richmond

It’s silly things like this that make me love science.

Driving a vehicle is a very human skill. There are some elements of the task that you just can’t convey very well without audible language. This is why it’s always impressive when animals are trained to drive some sort of vehicle. It’s even more impressive when they drive a tiny vehicle built just for them. It’s also adorable.

Behavioral scientists at the University of Richmond ran an experiment last week in which rats were placed into small, motorized buggies, over which the rats had complete control. They could accelerate and steer by manipulating copper wires placed on the front of the vehicle. The rats and their vehicles were placed in a small testing area with a target on the far wall. If the rat could maneuver their vehicle to the target, they were rewarded with a snack of Froot Loops.

While this may seem kind of pointless (albeit very cute), there is actually some tangible data to be gained here. After the test, the rats had their droppings tested for levels of corticosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone, which causes and relieves stress, respectively. Rats who had control over the vehicles showed lower levels of stress than those who merely rode in the vehicle as a control. In layman’s terms, being in control of one’s own environment can relieve stress. When you learn a skill that gives you increased agency in your life, you feel better about yourself.

The head of the study, Dr. Kelly Lambert, believes this outcome could give us some insight into human behavioral patterns and stress relief. “My students have been so interested in using some of our old fashioned behavioral principles to train the rats, and we’re interested in how they can use the car as a tool to navigate the environment,” she said. “It’s been such a good learning opportunity.”