Variation in the form of Pavlovian conditioned approach behavior among outbred male Sprague-Dawley rats from different vendors and colonies: sign-tracking vs. goal-tracking

PLoS One. 2013 Oct 1;8(10):e75042. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075042. eCollection 2013.


Even when trained under exactly the same conditions outbred male Sprague-Dawley (SD) rats vary in the form of the Pavlovian conditioned approach response (CR) they acquire. The form of the CR (i.e. sign-tracking vs. goal-tracking) predicts to what degree individuals attribute incentive salience to cues associated with food or drugs. However, we have noticed variation in the incidence of these two phenotypes in rats obtained from different vendors. In this study, we quantified sign- and goal-tracking behavior in a reasonably large sample of SD rats obtained from two vendors (Harlan or Charles River), as well as from individual colonies operated by both vendors. Our sample of rats acquired from Harlan had, on average, more sign-trackers than goal-trackers, and vice versa for our sample of rats acquired from Charles River. Furthermore, there were significant differences among colonies of the same vendor. Although it is impossible to rule out environmental variables, SD rats at different vendors and barriers may have reduced phenotypic heterogeneity as a result of genetic variables, such as random genetic drift or population bottlenecks. Consistent with this hypothesis, we identified marked population structure among colonies from Harlan. Therefore, despite sharing the same name, investigators should be aware that important genetic and phenotypic differences exist among SD rats from different vendors or even from different colonies of the same vendor. If used judiciously this can be an asset to experimental design, but it can also be a pitfall for those unaware of the issue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Breeding*
  • Conditioning, Psychological*
  • Goals*
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Species Specificity