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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sancha, Mota #2, and Birria

Sancha posing for the camera on the day I bought her.

First of all I would like to start by saying... HAPPY BIRTHDAY SANCHA! It has been a year since I bought my oldest mouse, Sancha. I have always had a fascination for rodents. I really never knew why, maybe it has been the fact that they are small and furry or so just ecologically diverse. Beavers, squirrels, mole rats, and yes even mice, have always been at the top of the list of my favorite animals. I had just gotten an apartment, had no roommate to oppose, and felt lonely, so the natural thing was for me to buy a female mouse. Her coat attracted me immediately, a soft short hair fur colored white a light brown. Why a female? Males release pheromones in their urine to attract females, a fragrance that I do not appreciate. Shortly after getting Sancha, I noticed that her behavior seemed very passive compared to how she acted they day I picked her in the store. I had learned that mice like to live in communities, especially females, so I decided to purchase her some company two weeks later. Her two new roommates were Birria, a black colored short haired mouse and Mota, a pear colored mouse with dark brown spotting. Mota passed away in March due to illness, and was recently replaced by Mota #2 who looks just like her. I try to maintain the characteristics of the original group; I did not want to change things too much for my poor mice.

The reason why I am introducing my mice to this blog is due to a recent knowledge I have acquired in animal learning. In this case, I am more interested in individual and social learning. Learning is costly to individuals in nature. It tends to be evolutionary adaptive only when animals inhabit environments with high predictability within generations and low predictability between generations. In other words, learning happens only when the environment may change from the lifetime of parents to that of their offspring, and when the environment within an individual’s life does not change much. In other situations, behaviors that can be inherited through genetic means are far less costly and more efficient than learning capabilities. Knowing how rapidly mice reproduce, and their short life spans (1-2 years) it is reasonable to assume that a mouse fits the qualifications needed for learning to be possible in a species. Yes, I understand how common mice studies are, but I am an amateur scientist still and in my attempts to increase my knowledge of the scientific process I will perform this experiment.

I am going to teach Mota #2 a trick through the use of associative learning. Associative learning occurs when one manipulates an individual’s instinctive behavior in order to acquire a conditioned response to a neutral stimulus that the animal would not have otherwise. For example, if you are scared of snakes by instinct, it will be natural for you to seek cover at the sight of a snake. Now, if every time I show you a snake a introduce a red light, you will learn to associate the red light to the snake and eventually you will only behave fearfully when I introduce the red light alone. Sounds familiar? Yes, this is what Pavlov proposed when he trained his dogs to salivate to a bell.

So, Mota #2 will be given a piece of a sweet cookie along while I make clicking noises with my mouth. Eventually, I will test if she responds to my clicking alone. Of course, her responding to the clicking will also include some operator conditioning style of learning. Why, because looking for food in my hand is not a instinctive behavior, but an association that looking for food in my hand in response to the clicking usually results in her getting a treat. The experiment does no end here, since I will see if Mota #2 is able to teach this behavior to her cage mates. If all of them respond to the clicking is a similar manner, then they will have learned the behavior by copying their tutor.

I will keep you all posted on how this progresses. This is an interesting field of animal behavior and psychology since it can be applied to many aspects of life. How exactly does one learn to avoid foods that we do not like? How can we increase our educational learning skills through these primitive examples of learning? Learning how learning takes place is not only interesting but can be extremely helpful. Stay tuned for more!

Sancha, Mota, and Birria staring up from their cage.