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PLoS One. 2008 Mar 26;3(3):e1860. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001860.

Tool-use training in a species of rodent: the emergence of an optimal motor strategy and functional understanding.

Author information

  • 1Laboratory for Biolinguistics, Brain Science Institute, RIKEN, Saitama, Japan.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Tool use is defined as the manipulation of an inanimate object to change the position or form of a separate object. The expansion of cognitive niches and tool-use capabilities probably stimulated each other in hominid evolution. To understand the causes of cognitive expansion in humans, we need to know the behavioral and neural basis of tool use. Although a wide range of animals exhibit tool use in nature, most studies have focused on primates and birds on behavioral or psychological levels and did not directly address questions of which neural modifications contributed to the emergence of tool use. To investigate such questions, an animal model suitable for cellular and molecular manipulations is needed.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS:

We demonstrated for the first time that rodents can be trained to use tools. Through a step-by-step training procedure, we trained degus (Octodon degus) to use a rake-like tool with their forelimbs to retrieve otherwise out-of-reach rewards. Eventually, they mastered effective use of the tool, moving it in an elegant trajectory. After the degus were well trained, probe tests that examined whether they showed functional understanding of the tool were performed. Degus did not hesitate to use tools of different size, colors, and shapes, but were reluctant to use the tool with a raised nonfunctional blade. Thus, degus understood the functional and physical properties of the tool after extensive training.

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE:

Our findings suggest that tool use is not a specific faculty resulting from higher intelligence, but is a specific combination of more general cognitive faculties. Studying the brains and behaviors of trained rodents can provide insights into how higher cognitive functions might be broken down into more general faculties, and also what cellular and molecular mechanisms are involved in the emergence of such cognitive functions.

PMID:
18365015
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC2268009
Free PMC Article
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