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Tool-use by rats (Rattus norvegicus): tool-choice based on tool features


In the present study, we investigated whether rats (Rattus norvegicus) could be trained to use tools in an experimental setting. In Experiment 1, we investigated whether rats became able to choose appropriate hook-shaped tools to obtain food based on the spatial arrangements of the tool and food, similar to tests conducted in non-human primates and birds. With training, the rats were able to choose the appropriate hooks. In Experiments 2 and 3, we conducted transfer tests with novel tools. The rats had to choose between a functional and non-functional rake-shaped tool in these experiments. In Experiment 2, the tools differed from those of Experiment 1 in terms of shape, color, and texture. In Experiment 3, there was a contradiction between the appearance and the functionality of these tools. The rats could obtain the food with a functional rake with a transparent blade but could not obtain food with a non-functional rake with an opaque soft blade. All rats chose the functional over the non-functional rakes in Experiment 2, but none of the rats chose the functional rake in Experiment 3. Thus, the rats were able to choose the functional rakes only when there was no contradiction between the appearance and functionality of the tools. These results suggest that rats understand the spatial and physical relationships between the tool, food, and self when there was no such contradiction.

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No external funding supported this research.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Akane Nagano.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Data availability

The datasets obtained during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Research involving animals

All applicable institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted.

Electronic supplementary material

Online Resource 1 (PDF 247 kb)

Online Resource 2: Movie S1

On the first day of the hook pulling training in Experiment 1, the rat was able to obtain the reward successfully for the first time (MP4 3566 kb)

Online Resource 3: Movie S2

An example of a successful trial in the hook choice training during Experiment 1 (MP4 3504 kb)

Online Resource 4: Movie S3

In this example of a failure trial during the hook choice training, the rat chose the appropriate hook, but it failed to obtain the reward because the hook overturned (MP4 4935 kb)

Online Resource 5: Movie S4

In this example of a failure trial during the hook choice training, the rat chose the appropriate hook, but it failed to obtain the reward because it gave the reward a flick with its paw (MP4 5268 kb)

Online Resource 6: Movie S5

In this example of a failure trial during the hook choice training, the rat chose the appropriate hook, but it failed to obtain the reward because it raised the end of the hook, causing the hook to pass above the reward (MP4 1498 kb)

Online Resource 7: Movie S6

An example of the functional and the non-functional rake choice trials in Experiment 2 (MP4 6372 kb)

Online Resource 8: Movie S7

An example of the functional and the non-functional rake choice trials in Experiment 3 (MP4 7615 kb)

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Nagano, A., Aoyama, K. Tool-use by rats (Rattus norvegicus): tool-choice based on tool features. Anim Cogn 20, 199–213 (2017).

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  • Tool-use behavior
  • Tool-choice behavior
  • Rodents
  • Rats