Of mice and men-and wheels
Think of the most silly zoological study possible and you'd probably come up with trying wild animals on hamster wheels! Now dismiss that thought, because now it looks like it's time to look at the enhancement of activity levels in the captive animal, including ourselves. There is the neurotic look about some wheel-running animals, but if you give a wild animal a choice, they choose activity.
Wild mice can quickly be found to "elect" for wheel activity, with the same duration as that of caged mice. Using largely what appear to be wood mice, Apodemus sylvaticus , but presumably some Mus musculus in their urban experiment, Johanna H. Meijer and Yuri Robbers have investigated if the health benefits and disease resistance derived from exercise could possibly affect natural situations in a species' habitat. With the advantage of working in the Neurophysiology Lab. of Leiden University in the Netherlands, they had the confidence to attempt experiments on wild creatures, even those from different phyla. The remarkable paper can be found in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in - Wheel Running in the Wild.
In the Dutch dunes (no public access) and in an urban green space, the animals available, with a food bribe, proved to make 12,000 wheel movements over 3 years. The food bribe later proved to be unnecessary, especially with very young individuals. The more fantastical side of the experiment saw snails, and to a much greater extent, slugs, using the wheels repetitively! From mice, shrews, rats and frogs, it appeared to be the juveniles who predictably used the wheels, with the highest use in, "Summer Nights." 200 day-old mice in the lab ran for similar times as the mice but with higher speeds recorded.
Factors influencing wheel running could range from play or escape motivations to a motor response to external stimuli such as foraging behaviour or hunger. Without the presence of food, the number of visits to the site decreased, but the fraction of visits including wheel running increased. The reward was fairly obviously the wheel! Human physical activity is currently one of medicine's prime obsessions, given that two thirds of disease is created by lifestyle. As this research shows that stereotypic behaviour in wheels in less likely than "elective" behaviour, the whole animal experience we all have seems open to physical electives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) would join with the Whylde Inspirations for Mice (WHIM) in approving further activity on this wheel,
Next up, skateboards for manta rays! in The Manners of Mantas.