Stories tagged rats

It's Friday, and y'all know what that means. Yup, time for a new Science Friday video.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week,

"Many mammals have whiskers but not all whisk. Cats don't. Rats do. To whisk, rats use special muscles in their face to brush their whiskers against an object. From the bending bristles, rats seem to be able to decode an object's shape and texture and Mitra Hartmann, engineer at Northwestern University, wants to understand how. This week, Hartmann and colleagues published a 3D whisker model, which she says will help quantify what information the brain receives from a whisk."


Guffaw with a cat? Giggle on a train. Even in the rain. No seriously, I was reading an Associated Press article last week about the topic of laughter and it did include rats that laugh. Science takes laughter very seriously. Just doing a Google search on science+laughing gave me more than 26 million hits! The rat guy intrigued me the most. I found his video available here.

Despite an ethological background of my own, I’m not sure I’m on board yet with Dr. Panksepp and his work. However, not only have researchers tickled rats and listened to them laugh, but other scientists have looked into like behavior in monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, and possibly even dolphins. Perhaps laughter is a trait more primitive than the lineage of humans. It strikes me that, like humans, all the aforementioned animals would be considered social animals. There clearly is a social aspect to the behavioral benefits of this kind of expression. Some science has even looked at the evoluntionary effects of laughter.

Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”. It turns out that studies have delved into a multitude of health effects from laughter. Proponents tout its benefits. It can relax the muscles of the body, alleviate stress, trigger the release of certain hormones, lower blood pressure, and even protect your heart. This isn’t the first time Buzz has looked into the health effects of laughter. Despite studying its many effects, science still doesn’t quite understand the full mechanism of the physiological process. You can take a look at some of the best works here…
How Laughter Works.
Laughing with your Brain.
How we laugh
There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each day
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each dayCourtesy Extra Medium's

While not everyone laughs the same, we all learn to laugh early and often. Children ages 4 to 5 laugh more than 400 times a day. As adults, we manage only 15 times a day to enjoy some humor. Since it is reasonably accepted that laughter is contagious, maybe we only need to promise to pass one good joke a day to bring a smile to a fellows face. If that doesn’t work you can always try this audacious little feline.

Laugh a little!

Thank goodness for creative scientists! There is a new report out that Brilliant blue G, a derivative of a commonly used blue food color (FD&C blue No. 1), can improve recovery from a spinal cord injury. This study found in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," is summarized in and in a CNN article.

I read that currently only 15% of all people with spinal cord injuries can even be treated in the emergency room so this is a potential treatment for 85% of all spinal cord injuries. And the better news is the rats in the study showed only one side effect, they temporarily turned blue. The researchers are applying for permission to test it in humans - I hope it works as well as it did in the rats.


"He wouldn't make a mouthful": said William, who had already had a fine supper, "not when he was skinned and boned."
"He wouldn't make a mouthful": said William, who had already had a fine supper, "not when he was skinned and boned."Courtesy Radha Blossom
Hey, everybody! Remember yesterday?

I sure don’t. The last thing I remember is TGIF programming, and feeling really angry about something (it wasn’t the TV I was upset with, that much I know), and the next thing I’m aware of is waking up under the sink…in the yard! It was my yard, but not my sink. Weird.

Anyway, the last week is a little blurry, to say the least. What happened in this week? I only have a few clues to go on: new tattoos (did I get my own name tattooed on me, or the name of someone else called JGordon?), a new t-shirt (it smells like burned hair, and it says “Try me, Lincoln!”), and some Science Buzz blog entries.

Bloody noses? Bigfoot? I thought this was supposed to be a science blog! I was clearly out of my gourd—there’s not a test tube or a lab coat to be seen in those posts.

And then there’s the kangaroo meat post. I might have been on to something there: it’s about the environment, and animals, and Paul Hogan. Whatever was going on in my head, I seem to have momentarily surfaced near enough to lucidity to string several paragraphs of real words together. Words about eating animals and environmental impact. And stuff.

Wherever I was (geographically) yesterday, I like where I was going (mentally), and I have decided to pursue that train of thought.

The word, then, is “patal-bageri.” I mean “words.” Words.

The Indian state of Bihar, unwilling to be out-crazied by Australia, may be pursuing a new meat industry of its own: rat, or “patal-bageri.”

Like the Aussies, the welfare ministry of this state is hoping to kill two birds with one stone (except one of the birds will actually be a rat, and they probably won’t use a stone—maybe a hammer instead). Hunting rats would reduce the amount of grain lost to the rodents (naturally) as well as provide a cheap and plentiful supply of meat. Rat meat.

The minister of welfare has pointed out that the Musahar caste, of which there are 2.4 million members, have traditionally eaten rats for a very long time (“Musahar” roughly translates to “rat eaters” in Hindi), hunting them in their rice fields. If the Musuhars—one of the poorest castes in the country—can eat rats, says the minister, why can’t everybody else?

Someone got to this rat already!: Nuts.
Someone got to this rat already!: Nuts.Courtesy erik langner
The ministry plans to set up rat meat stalls in rural fairs, to give people a taste of the protein-rich meat, and hopes to eventually have “rat meat centers” in urban areas. The Musahars could be engaged to start rat farms, hopefully empowering them socially and economically (I have a feeling, though, that some people might still look down on rat farmers).

The eating of rats obviously has kind of a stigma to it, but it’s certainly not unheard of—in cultures that don’t specifically forbid eating them (Islam and Judaism, for instance, have strict taboos against consuming rat meat), rats may be eaten as a crisis food, or regularly with other bush meats. Cane rats make up fully half of the locally produced meat in Ghana (check out this picture of a soon to be delicious cane rat).

I might eat rat meat, but it’s good that I don’t have to eat rat meat (it’s nice to have control over that decision). Should anyone be unable to wait for the patal-bageri industry to arrive on American shores, however, here are some recipes for rats (and mice):

Something Thai

Rat and mouse recipes

And some more


She'll never know a hard day's work in her life: unless you're willing to help her.
She'll never know a hard day's work in her life: unless you're willing to help her.Courtesy PKMousie
Studies have shown that rats that are not subjected to cruel medical tests grow up to be wild, dirty rats. Without a healthy fear of God, so to speak, rats never learn appropriate boundaries, and stroll through life taking for granted the fact that they’ve never had eyeliner blown up their nostrils. For years, pharmaceutical companies and cosmetics developers have done their very best to make sure that rats grow up to be humble, responsible adult rodents.

However, there is a disturbing new trend towards zero-rat (zero animal, in fact) medical testing. Popular Science details a few of these frightening new methods. Episkin, for instance, is lab-grown human skin developed by L’Oréal, which can be used for testing cosmetics. “Can be used,” certainly, but “should”? Hardly. Why volunteer defenseless human skin for painful tests when there’s probably a perfectly good mousey in the next room, just waiting for a little discipline and structure to come into its life?

Another company is developing a “chip” that uses liver enzymes, and various types of cultured cells to test new medications for toxicity in the body. Again, we’re taking jobs away from rats here.

The article also mentions the idea of introducing human subjects earlier in the trial period of a new drug. Tragically removing many animal test subjects from the process, humans are given itty-bitty “microdoses” of a drug, which are then tracked through the body by means of radioactive, non-toxic tracer particles. The activity of the drug is observed and evaluated to see if further tests (on animals) are warranted. But why not just use animals in the first place? It sounds like something they’d enjoy.

The whole thing serves to reemphasize that we have be conscious of where our medicines and cosmetics are coming from. Don’t just assume that they’ve been tested on animals—insist on it. It’s better for us, and for them.


Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.
Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.Courtesy The Weizmann Institute of Science
The way that scientists seem to be able to read my mind, or at least predict the things I’ll want, is frightening to me sometimes. Frightening in the best way, of course, like how a birthday party is frightening.

See, just the other day I was lying on the floor of my room, thinking about rats. I was thinking about how great rats are, and wishing that there was some way to increase the ratty-ness of the world. Because, for all the great things about rats, they still have their drawbacks. Their size, for one—rats can get pretty big, but, in my opinion, not nearly big enough. Also, rats die. Could there possibly be a way, I wondered, there on the floor, to create a rat that can’t die? Maybe a whole race of undying rats? Dreams, I thought, just dreams…

Not so. Scientists have done their thing (science) and created a robotic “whiskered” rat (and remember, robots can’t die, not really). And don’t change your pants just yet, not until you hear this—the robo-rat is also four times the size of a real rat! Where dreams end and reality begins is no longer obvious to me!

The “whiskers” of the robot are intended to allow it to identify objects through touch (an angle largely ignored in robotics). Using this powerful sense, researchers say, “the whiskered robot will be able to quickly locate, identify and capture moving objects.” Wonderful! All that sentence needs is for a “kill” to be inserted, and we’ll have perfection.

Oddly enough, the creation of a giant, blind, robotic rat is not the ultimate goal of this research. By building a robot to that mimics an animal’s senses, scientists hope to learn more about the way the brain processes and interprets data gathered by these senses. The step-by-step construction of this “brain like system” allows scientists to find the most efficient and accurate methods of interpreting sense data, and the result is likely very similar to the brain’s own processes. The results of a project like this one might eventually be applied to the construction of machines, for instance, that could be used “in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.” Or, ideally, to fill the nights of the future with huge, metal rats.


Get used to this view: They're coming.
Get used to this view: They're coming.Courtesy WhatDaveSees
When will we learn that “lost worlds” should stay lost? Ask Challenger – that sort of thing is best left alone.

But no. We can’t leave well enough alone, and now giant rats have been unleashed upon the world.

Last year an international team of scientists discovered an incredibly isolated and pristine jungle in Papua New Guinea. Even the nearby indigenous groups claimed to have never visited the area, and it was dubbed “a lost world” (there has to be a Buzz post on it somewhere around here, but, failing that, here’s an article on the discovery).

The region has since yielded dozens of examples of previously unknown species of plants and animals - lots of flowers and pretty little birds. The most recent expedition, however, found something altogether less pleasant. Two things, actually: a a giant rat, and a tiny possum (which I don’t particularly like either. Who knows what they could be keeping in their tiny little pouches? Derringers? Marsupial pornography?).

The rat is about five times the size of a normal city rat, and apparently has no fear of humans (it wandered into the biologists’ camp several times during the expedition). Also, according to my imagination, it feeds exclusively on human babies, smells like burning tires, and endlessly thinks of ways it could sneak into your bedroom at night.

So far, the beast seems to be confined to Papua (another “Rat Island, if you will), but I am entirely of the opinion that the rest of the world should prepare for imminent invasion. How? Conventional anti-rat weapons won’t work on these behemoths, although Hollywood has shown that they can be killed the same way as most monsters: by fire and swords. So stockpile that.

Honestly, in this picture it looks kind of cute.


Come to Rat Island before this is all that's left!: They're pretty cute when they're alive.
Come to Rat Island before this is all that's left!: They're pretty cute when they're alive.Courtesy loungerie
Honestly, you know what would be more fun than Disney World? Rat Island. What has Disney got that Rat Island doesn’t? Mickey Mouse? Please - what’s one huge rodent compared to the thousands on Rat Island? You want rides? Use your imagination, and save the money. Plus, while Disney World will be there forever – after the nuclear apocalypse, the cockroaches will still be riding Space Mountain – Rat Island may not be around for much longer. Sure, the island itself will still exist, but the rats will be gone, and much that was beautiful on Rat Island will be lost. It’ll be like the elves leaving Middle Earth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

JGordon, you say, we can’t all be as informed as you. What is Rat Island? Oh, it’s only an island covered in rats, located on the far southwest of the chain of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. It used to be covered in sea birds (Bird Island?), but in 1780 the very first brown rat scampered to shore from a grounded Japanese ship. Rats love birds, or at least their eggs, and so very soon the bird population fell from approximately “lots” to approximately “zero.” Also, it is estimated that one pair of breeding rats can produce a population of 5,000 rats in one year, so it didn’t take long before the rats could comfortably raise their flag over the island.

The particular variety of rat that has made Rat Island its home is the Norwegian rat, also known as the brown rat, the common rat, or the wharf rat. Or, as I like to call them, the plague rat, on account of their historical roles as reservoirs of bubonic plague. They are one of the largest varieties of rats in the world, occasionally reaching lengths of about 20 inches, and weighing over a pound. Despite their place-specific name, it’s unlikely that they actually originated in Norway. They probably originally migrated to Europe from central Asia. However, it doesn’t matter much today where they came from, seeing as how they pretty much live everywhere except the Arctic and the Antarctic – they live, more or less, where ever humans live, in populations essentially equaling that of their human cohabitants. New York City’s population of Norwegian rats, for example, has been estimated by some to be approaching 8 million.

Seeing as how the human population of Rat Island is zero, efforts will soon be made to restore the natural order of things (a rat for every person!). Alaska will be initiating “a multi-pronged attack” to drive rats from the state. Previous rat-eradication programs, like that carried out by Alberta, Canada, in the 1950s, have relied on shooting and poisoning rats, as well as bulldozing, burning, and blowing up rat-infested buildings. Alaska simply intends to cover Rat Island in an anticoagulant poison, which will cause the rodents to bleed to death. A little gruesome, I suppose, but Norwegian rats are clever little guys (some studies even suggest that they are capable of metacognition - thinking about thinking, pretty much), and will wait after eating just a small amount of something to see if it makes them sick. The anticoagulant takes a week or two before it kills rats, and so they generally won’t associate the poison with its effects.

Wildlife biologists expect that the return of the birds to the island, once its noble rats have disappeared, to be “dramatic,” with puffins, auklets, and storm petrels (among others) to appear in force by the next spring. So forget Florida, and go to Rat Island before it’s too late.


Drowning his sorrows: Sorry, little buddy, but it won't work.  (Photo courtesy of AlexK100 on
Drowning his sorrows: Sorry, little buddy, but it won't work. (Photo courtesy of AlexK100 on
Scientists are giving alcohol to little ratsies and discovering that drinking may, in fact, strengthen memory. At first glance, this flies in the face of hundreds of years of college students waking up with skinned knees, burned fingers, and mystery bruises, and then wondering how they possibly could have obtained them, but the methods employed by Ohio State researchers are hilarious enough, in a casual cruelty kind of way, that one has to take notice.

The researchers found that moderate consumption of alcohol seems to benefit memory, while the consumption of large amounts tends to impair it, except in situations involving “heightened emotion.”

These conclusions were reached by giving rats liquid food solutions containing 0, 2.5, or 5 percent alcohol. According to their report, “the lower dose of alcohol is equivalent to a couple of glasses of wine a day and produces blood-alcohol levels well below typical legal driving limits. The higher dose gave the rats equivalent blood-alcohol levels well above the driving limits.”

I wasn’t aware rats were even legally able to drive in the first place, but, then again, I’ve never been to Ohio.

The moderate drinking rats were found to have improved “neutral” memory (like the ability to recall the location of objects), as well as “emotional” memory (the emotional incident apparently being an electric shock to the foot). The heavy drinking rats were less able to remember the location of objects, but recalled the emotional memory (electrocution) very well.

The researchers think that the benefit of moderate drinking may be from the brain sensing the alcohol as a mild injury, and becoming stronger as a response – sort of like physical exercise, where muscles are challenged and then strengthen.

Apparently the idea of “drinking to forget” only works if you’re a very committed drinker, and even then you probably won’t forget your divorce. Finding your keys will be more difficult, though.

This all, of course, leaves the rats in something of a bind. With self-medication out of the picture, one wonders how they’re supposed to deal with the boozy food, as well as the constant electrocutions and memory tests. Talk therapy might be less than adequate.


The newest fighting force on the war on terror: white lab rats.

A team of six little rodents are now part of the arsenal of tools that Columbian police are using to sniff out bombs and land mines. And it’s their little size that’s the biggest thing going for them.

Police are preparing to use the rats to find and defuse the more than 100,000 land mines that pepper the Columbian countryside, the result of hostilities between the Columbian government and leftist rebels.

The rats, which weigh less than half a pound, don’t trigger any explosions when they walk atop the mines. Dogs or people, who’ve tracked down mines in the past, don’t have that light-weight luxury.

Over the past year, the rats have gone through daily training where they are placed in a maze which holds C-4 explosives and other bomb making materials. When they find a target, they’re rewarded: a cracker for their palates and a stroke on the top of their heads.

So far, the rats have been able to locate explosives 83 percent of the time. But they won’t get to try their skills out in the field until they hit the 100-percent mark, a benchmark trainers figure they’ll get to in another six months.

It’s believed Columbia is the first country to use rats for finding mines and bombs, but larger rodents have been used for similar work in the Sudan.

If the experiment works out, the little critters could have a big impact. Columbia has the highest number of land mine victims in the world. Last year, 1,070 people were involved in mines explosions. About one quarter of those people died.

And in a related development, researchers in New York are developing “Roborat.” The technology allows police to control rats’ movements by sending electronic impulses to their brains via miniature electronic backpacks strapped to their bodies.