Mice on Camera

Take a bunch of peculiar individuals, put them all together in one setting; film their every move, every second of the day. Sound familiar? Dr. Tali Kimchi is explicit about the resemblance of her experiments to a well-known reality TV show. The difference, of course, is that Kimchi’s subjects are mice. She places large groups of animals in a common pen in her lab, which is fitted out with video cameras, infrared lighting for nighttime filming and electronics to continuously record information from the ID chips implanted in each mouse. And while no one can deny that our enjoyment at seeing people voted out reveals something about human nature, Kimchi’s mice are likely tell us much more about the way that our societies form and how different personality types find their places in human social structures.

Big bro_mouse_big

Kimchi’s research takes place in that huge, messy gray area in which nature, nurture and culture overlap; where animals turn out to have unique personalities and human genes turn out to be more correlated with our behavior than we would like to believe. It’s also an area where mice can be bred to exhibit personality traits. Some of the mice used in the research team’s experiments were social animals; others had been bred to exhibit autistic-like activity – engaging in minimal social interaction and compulsive behavior patterns.

In contrast to the artifice of Big Brother-type situations, Kimchi and her team set out to create a semi-natural, yet controlled setting for observing mouse society. It turns out that mouse social structures are almost depressingly similar to human ones. Within 24 hours of coming together in one location, a social hierarchy begins to emerge. One alpha male mouse takes on the role of the house’s top banana (he has control over the movement of others, as well as first mating privileges). Sub-dominant male mice compete with the alpha male, waiting for a sign of weakness so they can capture the position of the alpha male; thus castes form within the groups. The mice have an intimate understanding of this structure: They know which of their fellow mice they can hang with, which to avoid and which they can pick on with impunity. Of course, that similarity is what makes these experiments compelling, on the one hand, and a useful model for further experimentation, on the other. Questions that still remain open: What are the factors that determine who will be the dominant and who will be the subordinate animal? How much of this nature (the genes, morphology, physiology  we born with); how much is nurture (environmental factors affecting how we behave); and how much is just random occurrence?

But there is also a curious twist to the Big Brother: Mice! story. When just the autistic-type male mice were placed in the house, their society appeared to be relatively libertarian: Leaders did not tend to emerge or, if one did manage to set himself up at the top, he was quickly overthrown.

Mouse society, it seems, is both complex enough and human-like enough to provide real insight into how social structures and behaviors emerge from the collective drive to live and function in large, cooperative units. Even more interesting might be the suggestion that this type of set-up could be used to conduct experiments on neuropsychological disorders that have social aspects, for example, autism or schizophrenia.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xT0k68QerdE

 

Comments

  1. #1 G
    California USA
    June 17, 2013

    Very interesting, but a look at the video shows that the mouse-house isn’t a very mouse-friendly environment.

    See also this:
    http://awionline.org/pubs/cq02/Cq-mice.html
    “Comfortable quarters for mice in research institutions.”

    The most important things that are missing, are places and materials to use for making nests. Mice have a natural drive to make nests for themselves and their offspring. An open space without private nest spaces is as unnatural for mice as it is for humans.

    That omission is serious enough to call into question the results of the project, altogether. Fixing it should be easy, and then we’ll have more reliable data on mouse societies.

    And yes, this is worthwhile research, it does have potential applications in the study of human societies, and it doesn’t raise any animal cruelty objections so it should be possible to replicate endlessly. If someone can’t afford to put tagging devices on their mice, they can get white mice and mark numbers on their backs with some kind of non-toxic indelible ink (and then renew the markings as needed if the mice shed or clean them off).

    It would also be informative to use colonies of wild mice, to compare their behavior to that of lab strains. Teaming up with a pest control contractor should make it possible to procure dozens of mice from live-catch traps, and then let them breed and see what happens.

    • #2 Weizmann Science Writer
      June 17, 2013

      Actually, there are private nest spaces around the sides — you don’t see them in the video.

  2. #3 G.
    California USA
    June 18, 2013

    Oh, OK. Thanks for the info, that solves for my objection.

    It would also be useful if the entrances to those private nests were marked in some manner that would be visible from above. Otherwise all one would see are mice disappearing and reappearing, like 3D creatures in 2D flatland;-)

  3. […] during her post-doc studies at Harvard University. In 2008, she went to work at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, where she spent more than three years building an automated system her team could use to study the […]

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