Adventure of a freelance science mouse

Two of my labmates study chipmunks. Recently they have been working with an engineer to develop a small tag that they can attach to a chipmunk to record the chipmunk’s movements. This, if it works, will let them “see” what the chipmunk is doing without actually watching–and bothering–the chipmunk, which would be great: one of the difficulties of behavioral ecology is that, for animals as for subatomic particles, observing the thing often affects the very nature of that thing.

Part of developing this tag is being able to check how well it works. Unfortunately, our lab doesn’t have any chipmunks just hanging around on which to test the tag. So instead, for an unofficial, exploratory test run, we recruited one of my domestic mice.

Oreo the freelance science mouse

The goal was to have Oreo engage in normal small-mammal behaviors and see if we could distinguish those behaviors on the data from the tag. We attached the tag to her with masking tape, which didn’t seem like it should work, but fortunately she didn’t try very hard to get it off. The current tag prototype isn’t wireless yet, so one of us held the end of the wire and moved it around while Oreo moved.

The testing set-up

We gave her something to climb on (one of the cat’s cardboard scratchy things, actually) to see if we could distinguish climbing from level walking.

(Her right eye looks wonky, but don’t worry–she has a clogged up tear duct, and she’s on eye drops and medication that should clear it up soon.)

Investigating the climbing thing

It turned out that we could tell the difference between climbing and walking: when she climbed, the tag showed gravity as going sideways instead of down.

Starting to get annoyed about the masking tape

She did plenty of grooming herself, which the mice often do when they’re somewhere new, so we got lots of good examples of what grooming data look like.

Next we tried to convince her to eat something, to see if we could distinguish eating from grooming.

Don’t you want some peanut butter?

Unfortunately since my mice have free access to food, she wasn’t particularly hungry.

I step on your peanut butter!

Itchy, not hungry

But of course, just as we resigned ourselves to getting no eating data, she picked up a sunflower seed and proceeded to shell and eat it. And the data did look different from the grooming data!

Eating after all

The last behavior that my labmates wanted to see was nesting, where the animal gathers up nesting material and arranges it all into a comfy nest. The mice do this all the time if you give them tissue paper, kleenex, or even newspaper strips. Oreo, however, was way too overstimulated to think about nesting.

Not interested

Even though we didn’t get an example of nesting, the test was a success. The movement data clearly showed several distinct behaviors. My labmates are excited, the engineer has ideas on how to further polish the tag, and I’m thinking about trying to put some on a few juncos next spring.

And Oreo gets to go back to being a wireless mouse again.

10 thoughts on “Adventure of a freelance science mouse

  1. Pingback: Another freelance science mouse | Tough Little Birds

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