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Some animals sniff to smell, others sniff to assert dominance

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When dogs or other animals sniff each other, the obvious assumption is that they are trying to smell each other. But Dr. Daniel Wesson, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, recently showed that the act of sniffing also serves as a form of communication meant to establish social hierarchies between rats.

Wesson’s research, published in the latest issue of Current Biology, was inspired by the knowledge that rats formed social hierarchies, much like humans do. The aim of his research was to elucidate the mechanisms by which these hierarchies were enforced.

Wesson’s team found that when one rat encountered another, the amount of sniffing exhibited by either rat depended on its relative standing on the social ladder. In other words, a rat of higher social standing would sniff the rat of lower standing at a greater frequency in order to communicate its dominance. Conversely, the subordinate would sniff less frequently to indicate its lower standing. Furthermore, Wesson and his team discovered that if this system was not respected, the dominant rat was more inclined to exhibit aggression towards the subordinate rat.

This discovery is pivotal to explaining the various ways animals behave and provide social cues to each other, and may prove to be a useful model of human interaction. Hopefully, by studying this behaviour and how neurological disruptions alter a rat’s ability to conduct itself ‘appropriately,’ we can expand our own understanding of the relationship between the human brain and social behaviour. Research in this area could help identify specific neural centers responsible for modulating social behaviour and how complex social disorders arise when damage or improper regulation is sustained.

With files from ScienceDaily.