Horizontal biases in rats' use of three-dimensional space

Behav Brain Res. 2011 Sep 23;222(2):279-88. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2011.02.035. Epub 2011 Mar 23.


Rodent spatial cognition studies allow links to be made between neural and behavioural phenomena, and much is now known about the encoding and use of horizontal space. However, the real world is three dimensional, providing cognitive challenges that have yet to be explored. Motivated by neural findings suggesting weaker encoding of vertical than horizontal space, we examined whether rats show a similar behavioural anisotropy when distributing their time freely between vertical and horizontal movements. We found that in two- or three-dimensional environments with a vertical dimension, rats showed a prioritization of horizontal over vertical movements in both foraging and detour tasks. In the foraging tasks, the animals executed more horizontal than vertical movements and adopted a "layer strategy" in which food was collected from one horizontal level before moving to the next. In the detour tasks, rats preferred the routes that allowed them to execute the horizontal leg first. We suggest three possible reasons for this behavioural bias. First, as suggested by Grobety and Schenk, it allows minimisation of energy expenditure, inasmuch as costly vertical movements are minimised. Second, it may be a manifestation of the temporal discounting of effort, in which animals value delayed effort as less costly than immediate effort. Finally, it may be that at the neural level rats encode the vertical dimension less precisely, and thus prefer to bias their movements in the more accurately encoded horizontal dimension. We suggest that all three factors are related, and all play a part.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bias*
  • Male
  • Maze Learning
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Movement
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • Space Perception*
  • Spatial Behavior*