C.W. Gusewelle

A mouse realizes life is a rat race

Why do caged mice run voluntarily on an exercise wheel? Is it something they actually enjoy, or could it be neurotic behavior inspired by the tedium of their confinement?

That is the question two Dutch behavioral scientists tried to answer by placing wheels in gardens and other areas where wild mice were likely to be present.

The result? Mice came to the wheels purely by choice, getting on to run awhile, getting off and then getting back on, providing what the researchers saw as clear evidence that they found pleasure in the activity.

In short, the scientists concluded, running is something a mouse does for the pure fun of it. It’s not my preferred way of passing time, although judging from the number of runners I see daily on sidewalks in the neighborhood, many people regard running as recreation.

Certainly if I were a mouse, a rat, a chipmunk, a shrew, a vole or any other sort of small rodent, I would assign a huge importance to staying in top physical shape.

Those wild citizens live in a hungry and dangerous world — a world of hawks and owls, foxes, coyotes and house cats, predators for whom a slow-footed mouse is just a tempting snack.

If my everyday world were inhabited by grizzlies, crocodiles and man-eating tigers, I’d want to keep myself fleet of foot too. I might not have a wheel to run on, but I’d start my mornings with a couple of hours on the treadmill.

An unexpected result of the mouse research in Holland was that devotion to the exercise wheel was not limited to mice. Motion sensors and video cameras also detected frogs and even slugs spending time on the wheels, although it would be a stretch to describe their activity there as “running.”

Pure science is wonderful — even science like this, for which no immediate application can be imagined.

The devotion to knowledge for its own sake has done much to enrich our lives. It has led to important medical discoveries, major increases in agricultural yields, improved accuracy in weather forecasting and other valuable insights.

Just what contribution might result from better understanding the habits and preferences of mice is not immediately clear.

“Build a better mousetrap,” the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said more than a century ago, “and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Or better yet, just install an exercise wheel and the mice will come running to their doom uninvited.

For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.