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The reach-to-grasp-food task for rats: A rare case of modularity in animal behavior?

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Abstract

Humans and nonhuman animals make use of sensory hierarchies in “selecting” strategies for solving many cognitive and behavioral tasks. Often, if a preferred type of sensory information is unavailable or is not useful for solving a given task, the animal can switch to a lower-priority strategy, making use of a different class of sensory information. In the case of rats performing a classic reach-to-grasp-food task, however, prior studies indicate that the reaching maneuver may be a fixed action pattern that is guided exclusively by the food’s odor plume until the point of contact with the food morsel [1–3]. We sought to confirm and extend these findings in several ways. In Experiment 1, using a GO/NO-GO variant of the classic task, we demonstrated that rats used the GO target’s odor both to trigger and guide their reaches. In Experiment 2, we showed that rats deprived of (a) vision, (b) object-recognizing rostral whiskers and forearm sinus hairs, or (c) both, displayed no deficits in triggering and guiding their reaches. Finally, in a third experiment in which the GO target’s location varied randomly across trials and only olfactory cues were available, we demonstrated that rats could determine the spatial endpoint of their reach without any loss of accuracy. Combined with results from a prior study in which bulbectomized rats never developed a new, successful reaching strategy despite extensive post-operative training [1], these results indicate that rats do not have a sensory hierarchy for solving the reach-to-grasp-food task, but rather, are guided by olfaction alone until their paw contacts the food morsel.

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