Rodent tales

Author: F1RST Magazine

Published Date: 6/1/2017

Categories: Animal Behavior F1RST Magazine F1RST Summer 2017 Psychology

Two rats walk into a lab

Student research into rodent behavior is a ticklish affair

It’s midday, but in the topsy-turvy world of the vivarium in the lower level of the Michael and Mary Jaharis Science Laboratories, it is near midnight and senior Taylor Kalmus is busy, tickling rats.

Not just for fun (though these albino rats are pretty cute and highly social), but for science. Kalmus is a biology and psychology double major, and she’s involved in a research project for Psychology 414: Research Methods in Behavior Analysis.

Rats, which are nocturnal animals in the wild, are kept on a schedule 12 hours off in the lab. It makes them more active during the day when students can conduct research. Kalmus’ research is designed to see whether the rats, which previously have been conditioned to laugh whenever they hear a certain tone, can be taught to suppress that laughter through instrumental conditioning. If the rat remains silent after hearing the tone, it gets tickled. Will the rats learn to suppress their guffaws? Don’t bother trying to listen for the laughter; this is dog-whistle stuff, an ultrasonic sound that can only be registered by sophisticated equipment.

A handful of rats currently reside in the vivarium, one of a number of research spaces in the sparkling new Jaharis Laboratories building. They’ll be re-homed with loving families when their tour of duty ends. In the meantime, they’ll be hanging around, eating occasional reward treats—and giggling.

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