Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology have discovered that mice that have spent more time living with humans develop far more advanced problem-solving skills than other rodents. Learning is a must: they must survive without being seen and captured.
It is known that human beings have a great impact on the distribution and abundance of animal species throughout the planet. Although the ecological effects of human-altered environments are increasingly understood, little work has yet been done on the consequences for the evolution of species.
However, research suggests that optimized cognitive abilities and the ability to innovate are crucial traits for animal species seeking to thrive in human-altered habitats. Is this the case with the rodents that live with us?
A long coexistence
House mice, which live alongside humans in houses and buildings, must be very effective in solving various problems. In addition to going unnoticed, they need to obtain food by opening packages and containers or construct hiding places that facilitate successful escapes when someone finds them.
It is common to find these rodents in all kinds of buildings, but strangely they always manage to go unnoticed. They are often fought like a plague for health and hygiene reasons, although specialists maintain in their research that the extensive relationship between rodents and humans it is an excellent example of coexistence between species.
According to a release, the researchers sought to determine in their study whether the mice subjected to this pressure when living with humans achieved some type of advantage in relation to other rodents. They wondered if they had managed to develop special abilities over time that other mice did not need to incorporate.
To do this, they analyzed species of mice from three places around the world with an extensive history of relationships with humans, ranging between 3,000 and 11,000 years of coexistence between both species. The purpose was to measure the ability to solve general problems and the search for novelties, that is, the development of behaviors in response to unique conditions.
They also investigated the control of motor actions that were dangerous for mice, and that they should refrain from doing because they would alert humans to their presence, such as consuming food that generates loud noises or sounds.
Cognitive and evolutionary changes
In addition to verifying the development of these new abilities, the specialists discovered, when comparing the results with the behaviors of other rodents, that the advantages did not originate in the environment: they were due to cognitive and evolutionary changes that confirmed a learning process, passed down between different generations.
Specifically, they discovered that populations of mouse subspecies that lived longer with humans excelled in solving problems in seven food extraction tasks, when compared with subspecies that had lived together for a shorter period of time.
As the scientists establish in their study, recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the subspecies of domestic rodents that stand out have developed better cognitive abilities since living with humans in urban environments.
This data suggests that the ability to solve problems and the consequent cognitive evolution may be transcendent traits that promote the prosperity of animal species in environments altered by humans.
Enhanced problem-solving ability as an adaptation to urban environments in house mice. Lara Vrbanec, Vanja Matijević and Anja Guenther. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2504
Photo: Wolfgang Hasselmann and Unsplash.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.