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Anim Behav. 1998 Jul;56(1):11-27.

Voluntary wheel running: a review and novel interpretation.

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Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol


Voluntary wheel running by animals is an activity that has been observed and recorded in great detail for almost a century. This review shows that it is performed, often with startling intensity and coordination, by a wide variety of wild, laboratory and domestic species with diverse evolutionary histories. However, despite the plethora of published studies on wheel running, there is considerable disagreement between many findings, thus leading to a lack of consensus on explanations of the causality and function. In the initial part of this review, I discuss the internal and external factors that may be involved in the causality of this behaviour, with an emphasis on disparities in both the factual and theoretical development of the subject. I then address the various proposed functions of wheel running, again highlighting evidence to the contrary. This leads to the conclusion that any single theory on the basis of wheel running is likely to be simplistic with little generality. I then present a novel, behaviour-based interpretation in which it is argued that wheel running has no directly analogous naturally occurring behaviour, it is (sometimes) performed for its own sake per se rather than as a redirected or substitute activity, and studies on motivation show that wheel running is self-reinforcing and perceived by animals as 'important'. This review proposes that wheel running may be an artefact of captive environments or of the running-wheel itself, possibly resulting from feedback dysfunction. I also discuss the ubiquity and intensity of its performance, along with its great plasticity and maladaptiveness, all indicating that if it is an artefact, it is nevertheless one of great interest to behavioural science.


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