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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

18 July 2023

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Studying native animals

After studying the problem-solving abilities of mosaic-tailed rats in a lab, JCU Researcher Dr Misha Rowell set out to discover whether animals in the wild had similar skills. What she found was altogether surprising.

Animals may be more clever than we commonly think, says Dr Misha Rowell. “It is hard to measure animal behaviour and cognition to find out how good they are at problem solving,” Misha says. “But if you use puzzles that are a standard device across species and across individuals, it's really surprising, and also fun to see what they can do.”

As part of her honour’s thesis within the Bachelor of Science, majoring in Zoology and Ecology, Misha observed the behaviour of more than 60 mosaic-tailed rats. “I wanted to examine how environmental complexity affected the anxiety behaviour and spatial cognition of mosaic-tailed rats. That is, I wanted to learn how the rats move around a maze and learn about their whereabouts.” Later, for her PhD research, Misha moved on to looking at what aspects of an individual rat affected its problem solving, and how this changed across their lifespan.

Misha says she was especially interested in mosaic-tailed rats because they are an Australian native rodent. “Most people in Australia know a lot about marsupials, and they try hard to protect them. But not a lot of people actually know we have native rodents as well, such as the mosaic-tailed rat,” Misha says, “and there's obviously a lot of negative ideas about what a rodent is and the roles they play in our ecosystems and communities.”

The rats were caught in the rainforest close to the JCU Cairns, Nguma-bada campus, in Smithfield. Misha humanely caught the rats using Elliot traps, which are metal boxes stocked with a sweet treat.

Misha Rowell.
An adult fawn-footed mosaic-tailed rat.
Misha Rowell with two of her research participants (left: supplied by Rhys Sharry, right: supplied by Misha Rowell).

Rats with character

Misha found that although mosaic-tailed rats may look similar to each other from the point of view of a human, they all have different characters and show individual behaviours. “We have some that are exploratory and brave around new spaces and new objects,” Misha says.

“Others are very, very cautious and don't like to go and explore new things. That obviously affects how they interact with a puzzle, which is something they have never seen before.” Misha says she also found that age was not a significant factor when it came to solving the puzzles, as young rats were just as successful in cracking her puzzles as older rats.

Into the wild

After finishing her research at the JCU Animal Behaviour lab, Misha set up her puzzles in the tropical rainforest. Placing them only a few hundred metres away from the lab allowed Misha to study what wild animals were willing to do for a sweet treat. With this set-up, Misha was also able to study larger animals that didn’t fit into a lab setting, such as lace monitors, which can grow up to two metres in length.

Misha says she was surprised by the number of native species that made an on-camera appearance. “We counted over twenty different species, and that was just the start,” she says. “We also counted water rats and prehensile tailed rats, which are rarely recorded in this area. Moreover, we ended up recording seven species solving the problems, six of which no one had ever actually seen solve problems before."

Inclusive puzzles for the animal world

Different species have different ways of interpreting information, but also different ranges of movements, Misha says. This is why she chose multiple types of puzzles to make them accessible and  entice different species. “I had things that they could push or pull or pick up, for instance,” she says. “We didn't want to choose a puzzle that was going to automatically limit which animal could solve it.”

Studying animals in the wild can be unpredictable and generate more than one surprising find. “In the lab, I was only ever measuring one individual mosaic-tailed rat at a time because the species is supposed to be fairly solitary,” Misha says.

“Mosaic-tailed rats can be quite territorial. However, out in the wild, I think it was around mating season for the rats, because we would often have some footage of a female with a male close behind,” Misha says. “Sometimes, one mosaic-tailed rat would already be there, and another would come to investigate what was going on, and there'd be a little squabble about who has a turn at solving the puzzle. So those kinds of social interactions around a problem-solving opportunity are really interesting.”

Brush turkey.
White-tailed rat.
Snapshots from Misha's wildlife camera: Left: Brush turkey. Right: white-tailed rat. (Supplied).

Who's who in the animal world?

Conducting research in the wild also has its downsides, Misha says. “For instance, in many species, we can't tell individuals apart. We don't know if it was one individual constantly coming back, and we can't look at whether there's a difference between males or females.” This is something where lab research has its advantages, Misha says.

On the other hand, Misha is also pleased that some of her findings from the lab were confirmed in the wild. “We found that wild mosaic-tailed rats can also solve our puzzles. Therefore, this puts all of the work in the lab into perspective,” Misha says.

Misha found that other species of native rats were just as successful in solving problems as were her mosaic-tailed rats. “They were phenomenal and solved everything we would give them. They pick things up, and they are able to manipulate them with their hands and their teeth. That makes solving puzzles a breeze.”

Monitoring ecosystems

After finishing her PhD, Misha is now working as a state coordinator for an ecosystem monitoring project that Queensland National Parks (Department of Environment and Science) has implemented.

“Queensland National Parks have developed a set of questions on how we can monitor the condition of our national parks over time,” Misha says. “So whether it's an ecosystem or a cultural site or a visitor site, there is a set of questions that we ask at each year, or every few years.

“This way we track over time whether the pest and fire actions used in the parks are actually helping to improve the condition or, alternatively, how we need to change our management of the land.”

However, once a week, Misha still returns to the JCU Animal Behaviour lab. “I have a lot of data from my PhD research that I'm writing up into papers because they didn't necessarily fit into my thesis,” she says.

Another reason for Misha to come back to the lab is to look after her research participants. In the wild, most rats don’t live longer than two years, but some of the mosaic-tailed rats in her care are already seven years old. Nowadays, there is no more work to do for Misha’s clever rodents, aside from enjoying their retirement. After all, they have done their bit in the search to find out how well certain species of animals cope with human-induced changes in the environment.

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