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A rat race to investigate resilience

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Source: James Cook University

Could an animal’s personality and problem-solving skills help it to cope with environmental adversity?

Cairns animal behaviourist, Dr Tasmin Rymer, is working with Australian native rats to identify the characteristics that make some individuals better able to cope and survive in damaged and changed environments than others.

The James Cook University researcher wants to create an animal equivalent of programs like NASA’s astronaut screening to identify behavioural and neurological traits that make one animal more resilient than another.

Dr Rymer said rodents were one of the world’s most widespread animal groups, and their adaptability was one of the features that made them an ideal test animal for the project, 'identifying resilience'.

“Rodents occur from the harshest deserts to the coldest tundras and, as a group of animals, they are amazingly adaptive… but they are also at threat from environmental and climate change; 17 per cent of Australia’s rodent species have already become extinct since colonisation,” said Dr Rymer.

“They are amazing animals, and so interesting to study. Most people seem to think of them as pests or disease-ridden, but the more I study them, the more clearly I see that each individual is unique and has their own personality.”

Dr Rymer’s research project will put a group of fawn-footed mosaic-tailed rats (Melomys cervinipes) through their paces in a series of behavioural and cognitive tests.

She will look at four factors to develop a measure of an individual rat’s resilience: cognitive ability, personality, physiological traits, and gut microbial diversity, which is known to influence brain function, physiology and behaviour.

“To assess personality, I use standard laboratory tests, like giving the rats a novel object, and I measure behaviours like exploration, activity, and how long it takes to approach something new. Each individual has to experience each test twice, at least one month apart, to see whether each individual shows the same behaviour over time,” she said.

Dr Rymer said the individual rat's cognition was tested using obstruction tasks, puzzle boxes and mazes to gauge the rat's ability to solve problems, learn, and innovate.

The final stage - physiological testing - include measuring stress hormone levels and responses, and testing the rat’s faeces to map gut microbes.

“Once we know what factors are important for resilience, we can then take this predictive framework into the field for testing. This project has application for situations like species re-introduction to a region, or management of animals in captivity,” said Dr Rymer.

“A lot of animal behaviour work is done at a species level, not an individual level, and many studies only focus on a single aspect of an individual, such as its behaviour, or its cognition. I believe we need to look at individual variation within species and to integrate this with all aspects of ecological, habitat-based and environment science to approach problems of environmental and climate change.”

Dr Rymer has launched a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Pozible to raise $5000 to roll out the first round of testing, following preliminary groundwork in the laboratory.

For more information about the research, or to donate to the campaign, follow this link: https://james-cook-university.pozible.com/project/identifying-resilience/