Paper in Behavioural Processes
  • Bowen MT, Keats K, Kendig MD, Cakic V, Callaghan PD, McGregor IS (2012). Aggregation in quads but not pairs of rats exposed to cat odor or bright light. Behavioural Processes, 90, 331-336.

    In many prey species aggregation of individuals is a defensive strategy commonly employed in response to predators and predator-related cues. However, very little work has explored this adaptive response in laboratory rats. It is known that individual rats show characteristic defensive responses to predator odors, such as hiding, avoidance, inhibition of foraging, feeding and reproduction, and risk assessment directed toward the odor source. However, whether these species-typical responses in individuals are altered in the presence of other conspecifics is yet to be characterized. The present study therefore examined the defensive response of groups of two rats (dyads) or four rats (quads) to two unconditioned stressors: bright ambient light and cat odor (a 2g ball of cat fur). The dyads and quads were formed from familiar cage mates and test sessions (20min) occurred in a large open arena (1200mm(2)) to which the rats had been extensively habituated under dark conditions. The results showed that when quads of rats were exposed to either cat odor or bright light in this arena, they showed characteristic increases in close social proximity, termed "huddling". A tight grouping of 3 (triplet) or 4 (quad) rats was commonly seen in response to cat fur, while triplets were more commonly seen in response to bright light. Interestingly there was no evidence for increased social proximity in dyads exposed to either stressor, only in quads. However, cat odor caused other signs of fear (such as decreased locomotor activity and increased defecation) in both quads and dyads. It is concluded that huddling is a rodent defensive strategy in rats when anxiogenic stimuli are encountered by larger groups of rats.