Behavior of Captive White-Footed Mice

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Science  31 Mar 1967:
Vol. 155, Issue 3770, pp. 1623-1639
DOI: 10.1126/science.155.3770.1623


Detailed studies of the behavior of captive white-footed mice have cast a number of old problems in new perspectives. Many responses of small captive mammals cannot be interpreted at face value because of severe distortions of behavior that are caused by depriving the wild animal of natural outlets for activity. Confined animals are likely to seize upon and repeatedly exercise virtually any opportunities to modify (and alter their relationships with) their surroundings. In addition they have a strong tendency to counteract nonvolitional and "unexpected" deviations from the status quo. As a result, their responses do not bear an immutable relationship to the nature of the stimulus or other variable being modified; stimuli and activities that are rewarding in certain circumstances are avoided in others. These aspects of behavior have been illustrated by studies of nest occupancy, running in motordriven wheels, and control of intensity of illumination. The results of the control-of-illumination studies suggest the complex interplay of tendencies to modify features of the environment, to avoid conditions imposed compulsorily, and to select preferred levels of illumination.

The importance of split-second timing, coordination, and quick reflex actions in the running of activity wheels is indicated by the fact that experienced white-footed mice prefer running in square "wheels" and wheels with hurdles to running in plain round wheels. The relatively conservative behavior of these mice in selecting between multiple sources of food and water and different types of activity wheels suggests the need for careful experimental design in free-choice studies with inexperienced animals. The tendency of trained animals to give some so-called "incorrect" responses even after long experience can be interpreted most reasonably in terms of the adaptive value of a certain degree of variability of behavior in the wild.

White-footed mice readily master complex regimes in which several different levers and shutters must be pressed or rotated in certain sequences within seconds for different rewards. They quickly learn to traverse mazes containing hundreds of blind alleys and do so frequently without extrinsic reward. It is unlikely that these remarkable learning performances even begin to approach the capacities of the animals.

When two female mice having markedly different solitary behavior patterns were placed in consort, the behavior of each changed, becoming more like that of the other, and the animals showed a strong tendency to remain in each other's company. The behavior of mice in enclosures of great extent casts doubt upon the postulate that hunger and thirst play leading roles in the motivation of wide-ranging locomotor movements. Accordingly, studies of deprived domestic animals in simple mazes may have but limited significance for understanding the behavior of wild and relatively unconfined animals.

The existence of marked individual differences between mice selected at random from wild populations sounds the need for a cautious approach in the interpretation of results obtained with highly inbred domestic animals. The relatively uniform behavior of inbred strains represents only a small fragment of the total response spectrum for the species and probably has minimal significance for adaptation and evolution in the wild.

When allowed to control the intensity of illumination by operating a series of switches, white-footed mice establish a roughly 24-hour regime consistent with that experienced in the wild, namely dim light during periods of activity and very dim light during periods of inactivity. Consistent with this finding, when exposed to a dim-dark light cycle, the mice are active during the dim phase, not in darkness. Artificial twilight transitions of both constant and varying color temperature have several marked effects upon the activity of white-footed mice. The existence of a strong orienting influence of dim light on the direction of wheel-running suggests that mice in the wild use the twilight sun and the moon (and possibly other celestial light sources) as navigational references.

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