Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Degree Program

Biology, PhD

Committee Chair

Dugatkin, Lee Alan

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Corbitt, Cynthia

Committee Member

Corbitt, Cynthia

Committee Member

Eason, Perri

Committee Member

Ewald, Paul

Committee Member

de Waal, Frans BM

Author's Keywords

empathy; rodent empathy; helping behavior; prosocial behavior; helping behavior test


Empathy is the capacity to be affected by and share the emotions of others, to discern the circumstances prompting another’s emotional state, and to identify with another by adopting their perspective. Research investigating the empathically motivated behavior of rats can help inform the evolutionary history of empathy and provide additional support of the continuity of empathy in animals and humans. In this dissertation, I examine the helping behavior of rats to explore the complexities of rodent empathy. In Chapter I, I review the multiple layers of empathy and describe both historical and contemporary research examining empathy in non-humans. I explain why rats provide an ideal study system to explore empathy in other animals and the insights provided from behavioral, physiological, and neural research on rats. Chapter II details a pilot experiment aimed at discerning whether personal distress or concern for others motivates helping behavior in rats by introducing a separated escape area that could be easily accessed by rats exposed to a cagemate in distress. Although rats in the pilot experiment exhibited significantly less successful helping behavior in comparison to previous studies, ways to improve the protocol were gleaned for future work. Chapter III describes research determining whether the presence of a cost tempers the expression of helping behavior by introducing a water barrier that had to be crossed to help a trapped cagemate. This experiment also allowed me to test whether the presence of an escape area affected helping behavior. Chapter IV explores the communicative antecedents to helping behavior to determine the ultrasonic vocalizations that motivate prosocial action. Not only were distress vocalizations recorded and analyzed to discern the effects of these calls on subsequent behavior, but positive calls were also recorded and analyzed. Multiple explanations are offered to interpret the role of these calls. The work detailed is concluded in Chapter V in which I discuss the implications of my findings and their place in the current state of the field. I also discuss interesting avenues of exploration for future research.

Included in

Biology Commons