In a first of its kind experiment, researchers were able to show that animals can exchange favors and commodities, similarly to humans. For the longest time, trade has been a defining feature of humanity, an activity that was not seen in other species. Now, scientists have found that Norway rats are capable of exchanging commodities and favors as well.
As humans, our survival depends on our ability to cooperate with one another, and these relationships of cooperation have evolved to be extremely complex over time (banking, governments, public projects, team sports, symphonies, etc.). Of course, we are not the only species that cooperates, with many animals and insects engaging in similar behavior. However, the type of reciprocal cooperation strategy that humans engage in, such as trade and tit-for-that favors, seems to be very cognitively demanding, and is almost exclusively found in humans.
Commodity exchange for example is a staple of human civilization, and it has allowed for the development of the division of labor, upon which our economic and societal systems rely on. Until recently, this behavior has not been observed in animals.
Researchers at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of The University of Bern set out to test whether the Norway rat has the capacity to engage in reciprocal trade, particularly in food provisioning and allogrooming (care through physical contact). Rats were paired up, and the scientists applied saltwater to one of their necks, in an area that cannot be tended to through self-grooming. The rats then had the option to take food items and share them with their partners in order to induce a reciprocal favor.
What the experiment has shown was that the rats that shared food were more often groomed by their partners than the rats that refused to cooperate. Similarly, if rats were groomed by their partners, they were more willing to share their food provisions. This trading back and forth between the two rats indicates that they are capable of direct reciprocal trading, and that this type of behavior is not limited to large-brained species that have advanced cognitive capabilities. The behavior may be more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought.
This behavior could also explain why rats are such a successful species when it comes to survival, and why Norway rat infestations can quickly overwhelm a building. If you have a Norway rat infestation, contact us today and we will help you get it under control.