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Rat Like Me

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We city dwellers tend to shudder at the sight of the beady-eyed, black rat. Its kind invades our subways, trash cans, and water systems and may carry dangerous diseases.

But science writer Natalie Angier defends the oft-loathed rat in Tuesday’s New York Times, pointing out that basic rat research on major organs, physiological systems, and cancers has undoubtedly saved many thousands of human lives. What’s more, new studies reveal that rat behaviors are surprisingly humanlike: The critters laugh when tickled, get addicted to drugs, and know the difference between good and bad sex. They even have different personalities. As Angier explains:

Rats have personalities, and they can be glum or cheerful depending on their upbringing and circumstances. One study showed that rats accustomed to good times tend to be optimists, while those reared in unstable conditions become pessimists. Both rats will learn to associate one sound with a good event—a gift of food—and another sound with no food, but when exposed to an ambiguous sound, the optimist will run over expecting to be fed and the pessimist will grumble and skulk away, expecting nothing.

In May, Angier released her newest book, The Canon, a complete science crash-course for adults covering not only complex animal behaviors, but topical issues like global warming and stem cells. Check out how ScienceBloggers rated the book.

Image: iStockphoto