Q: We are attempting to do research before starting a science experiment with mice (for a science fair project). We are trying to find information about how easily distracted a mouse is. We plan to train our mice to go down a straight track to find a reward. After they are trained, we will place items (small pieces of fruit, a mouse chew toy, etc.) on the side of the track to see if they stop to investigate or if they continue toward the known reward. Do you happen to know if this has been researched or do you have any ideas on how the mice will react?
A: It sounds like an interesting experiment, and I would love to hear how it turns out. With mice, you need to remember that you are working with a prey animal whose entire existence is focused on “everything wants to eat me.” A mouse will quickly learn to run your straight track to get a treat, but don’t be surprised if it stays very close to the side walls so it feels safe. Anything you add to the track will appear to distract the mouse from the end goal, but it’s not really a distraction, it’s a strong drive to be completely aware of its surroundings so the mouse doesn’t become food before it gets to the food.
You can start by adding physical items to the track (which I can guarantee the mouse will explore), then move on to more subtle things like using a cotton swab to wipe a tiny spot of food (or something else with an odor) somewhere inside the track. I think you’ll be amazed at how sensitive these mice are.
But there’s one other thing to consider before starting this experiment: what’s going to happen to the mice after the science fair? You need to remember that these little mice aren’t just part of the project; they are sensitive and gentle living creatures that are going to need a permanent home. If you can’t commit to giving the mice a home and a good life, then you need to change your project.