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Physiol Behav. 2008 Mar 18;93(4-5):766-76. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.11.031. Epub 2007 Nov 29.

Effects of experience and context on 50-kHz vocalizations in rats.

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Experimental and Physiological Psychology, Philipps-University of Marburg, Gutenbergstr. 18, 35032 Marburg, Germany.


Rats can emit ultrasonic 50-kHz vocalizations which are generally assumed to reflect the animals' positive emotional state. However, some aspects question the reliability of 50-kHz calls as indicators of positive affective states. Firstly, rats also emit them in novel environments containing scents of other rats, or even while being victims of intra-species aggression. Secondly, huge inter-individual variability in call production can be observed. The present two studies were conducted to further determine factors other than reward, which may influence or even induce calling. Experiment A showed that 50-kHz calls were emitted in relatively high numbers during short isolation in test cages, and, to a lesser extent, also during testing in an open field and an elevated plus maze. Despite inter-individual variability, calling behavior was individually stable over days and occurred irrespective of whether rats were tested in a cage with or without familiar rat scents. These data indicate that 50-kHz calling is not necessarily a response to the presence of pleasurable or social stimuli. Additionally, it was observed that call emission during isolation is strongly affected by prior experience. Rats that had been trained repeatedly in an appetitive discrimination task emitted only few calls during short isolation in test cages, whereas naïve rats emitted high numbers of 50-kHz calls which decreased over time. The most likely explanation is that rats call in response to separation from the cage mate, as the first group was trained before the recordings, while the naïve rats were recorded immediately after separation. This explanation was supported by Experiment B, which showed that the rats that remained alone in the home cage also called at 50 kHz after separation from the cage mates. In both experiments, most of the 50-kHz calls were not frequency modulated, which lend support for the suggestion that this subtype has a social-coordinating function. The present findings urge sophisticated spectrographic analysis of ultrasonic vocalizations and caution when interpreting 50-kHz vocalizations, since specific subtypes of these calls can occur in contexts that are not necessarily pleasurable to rats, and are affected by prior experience and huge individual differences.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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