Hierarchies among equals - social rank in rats

More or less alongside my piece on depression's wiring diagram, this months' Scientific American Mind has a piece I wrote on how social hierarchies develop among rats.

Darlene Francis, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, placed 80 newly weaned rats in cages of four, with cage mates matched for size, activity level and early life environment. To Francis's amazement, it took weeks--until the rats were well past puberty--for a social hierarchy to evolve (as indicated by which mouse got first dibs at food and water, among other measures). Perhaps more surprising was that the hierarchies were not determined by the differences in weight, activity or size that had developed among the maturing quartets--or by anything else Francis could identify.

This is a pretty clever study. As Francis told me,

"Social rank is a huge deal, because in both rats and people, how you do in life depends more on social place than almost any other individual difference you can measure. This study suggests that social status is determined by something quite subtle."

This is one of those studies that examines something you might assume was already examined. Much of what scientists knew about rat hierarchies was drawn from cage pairings, in which size almost always determined dominance. But lab cage pairings are generally made after the rats are grown, and the bigger rat, holding the most obvious advantage, would instantly be top dog. So it was assumed size drove all such relations..

But no one knew what would happen if the rats started as equals. That's what Francis wanted to know.

She took particular care to match the foursomes not only for size, weight and activity level but also for level of maternal care. Work by Francis and others over the past decade has shown that rat mothers tend to be either highly nurturing or barely nurturing--an 8 or a 2, as it were--and that more highly nurtured rats go through life more confidently and competently. These factors raise their social standing, which breeds more confidence and better performance, and so on, in a happy loop. Rats from low-nurturing mothers, meanwhile, tend to be tentative, which lowers their social rank, which makes them more tentative.

For rats as for people, social rank and the individual's response to it have tremendous consequences. The top rats in Francis's study, for instance, performed far better than the second-, third- and fourth-ranked rats at cognitive tests such as finding hidden treats. They also acted more confidently and were less stressed (as indicated by stress hormone levels in their blood) when exposed to unfamiliar environments and other challenges. The lower-ranking rats solved puzzles more slowly. And even in their home cages, Francis says, they "looked like animals being tested in a novel environment. Not even home felt safe to them."

A dispiriting development, perhaps, after the weeks of early equality. Yet Francis sees in this study the outlines of levers by which such decrements might be reversed. The social hierarchy's slow development, along with its indepenÂdence from size and activity level, suggests to her that whatever factors dictated the social gradient involved subtle and highly malleable gene-environment loops: traits that emerge in reaction to experience and then, in turn, help to shape further experience.

Read the whole thing at SciAm Mind.

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As the articel above attaches great importance to animal-involved tests.
Being able to work out such a significant matter as predetermining group hierarchy just thanks to rats behaviour is great possibility for people to deepen their knowledge not only about animals thamselves, but also about human behaviour! In science's history breakthrough statements were made thanks to such animals as mouses (mainly in neuroscience), dogs (did you know that Pawlow's dogs have their own monument?), or even cockroachs (social laziness).
So why not take the chance?

"Something quite subtle"? Maybe it's just random -- some rat just happens to be at the right place and time to condense a hierarchy around itself? The "cause" is global?