America is a sinking ship

Right / behavioral research: Rats leave the sinking ship. Right?

The phrase about the fleeing rats has been overused in recent weeks when employees of the American president quit their jobs shortly before the end of his term in office (English equivalent: Rats desert a sinking ship). It remains to be seen whether they could still save their skin by doing this.

Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural history: "When a building is supposed to invade, the little mice wander away first." In Shakespeare Storm then there is talk of a ship whose condition is so pathetic that even the rats would have left it.

Clairvoyant abilities of the rodents cannot be assumed, and so the saying is based on the real experiences of many seafarers. Rats used to be frequent guests on ships, they were mainly in the rooms deep below deck, and sometimes in the bilges that were inaccessible to humans. If there was a leak in the hull or a fire broke out down there, they would be the first to notice. If the fleeing animals showed themselves on deck, the seafarers knew that something was wrong. And when the boat actually sank, the rats did what humans do in their desperation: they jump into the water even though they are not good swimmers.

At the moment of the catastrophe, people are known to show their true character, and when space in lifeboats becomes scarce, people who are castaway are said to have been pushed back into the sea by others. The results of an experiment by the Japanese researcher in the journal in 2015 are all the more astonishing Animal Cognition reported. Rats show helpful behavior towards soaked conspecifics, read the headline of their article.

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The scientists put two rats in a box that was divided into two parts: one half contained water, one rat had to make swimming movements to avoid drowning. Next door a conspecific sat on dry land, and only she could open the door in the Plexiglas wall and free the visibly stressed, wet rat. The animals showed compassion and helped one another. The rats who had been in the unpleasant situation themselves were most helpful.

Remarkable: if the animals had to choose between saving their mitrates and a chocolate reward, more than half decided to help. It is doubtful whether human subjects would have shown themselves so selflessly.

This week Iman Schw√§b from Leutewitz asks. And what are you looking for an answer to? Write to: DIE ZEIT, Wissen-Ressort, 20079 Hamburg, or [email protected] The archive: www.zeit.de/stimmts