How domestication modulates play behavior: A comparative analysis between wild rats and a laboratory strain of rattus norvegicusa

Laboratory rats have been widely used to study the development and neural underpinnings of play behavior. However, it is not known whether domestic rats play in the same way and at the same frequency as their wild counterparts. In this study, the play of juvenile rats from a colony of wild rats maintained in captivity was compared to that of a strain of domesticated rats (e.g., Long Evans hooded). Three predictions were tested. First, it was predicted that wild rats would incorporate more agonistic behavior in their play. This was not found, as in all cases, both the wild and the laboratory rats attacked and defended the nape during play, a nonagonistic body target. Second, because play is typically more frequent in domesticated animals than their wild progenitors, it was predicted that the wild rats should play less than the laboratory rats. This was found to be the case. Third, because wild animals tend to be less tolerant of proximity by conspecifics and tend to be more agile in their movements, it was predicted that there would be less contact between wild pair mates. This was found to be the case; data show that the play of laboratory rats involves the same target (i.e., the nape of the neck) and tactics of defense as those used by wild rats. However, the laboratory rats initiated playful attacks more frequently, and were more likely to use tactics that promoted bodily contact. These similarities and differences need to be considered when using laboratory animals as models for play in general.

Laboratory rats have been widely used to study the development and neural underpinnings of play behavior. However, it is not known whether domestic rats play in the same way and at the same frequency as their wild counterparts. In this study, the play of juvenile rats from a colony of wild rats maintained in captivity was compared to that of a strain of domesticated rats (e.g., Long Evans hooded). Three predictions were tested. First, it was predicted that wild rats would incorporate more agonistic behavior in their play. This was not found, as in all cases, both the wild and the laboratory rats attacked and defended the nape during play, a nonagonistic body target. Second, because play is typically more frequent in domesticated animals than their wild progenitors, it was predicted that the wild rats should play less than the laboratory rats. This was found to be the case. Third, because wild animals tend to be less tolerant of proximity by conspecifics and tend to be more agile in their movements, it was predicted that there would be less contact between wild pair mates. This was found to be the case; data show that the play of laboratory rats involves the same target (i.e., the nape of the neck) and tactics of defense as those used by wild rats. However, the laboratory rats initiated playful attacks more frequently, and were more likely to use tactics that promoted bodily contact. These similarities and differences need to be considered when using laboratory animals as models for play in general.

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