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Colleges Take Rat Research to Waste Recycling Site With RFID

Researchers from Fordham and Columbia Universities, using an LF RFID solution from UID, were able to take rodent behavior research out of cages and labs to track wild rats in their own environment.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 15, 2019

A set of four RFID-enabled lures at a Brooklyn recycling site have provided new material for researchers regarding how rats behave in the wild, what scents they are attracted to and which scents they avoid. New York City colleges Fordham University and Columbia University, working with RFID technology company UID Identification Solutions, have spent more than a year tracking the behaviors of city rodents—not in captivity, but in their own environment—and have learned details about rats that simply couldn't be accessed in a lab.

The solution, which tracks how rats behave when they smell male and female rat scents, both in open and enclosed areas, has proven that rat research offers greater insight when the animals are taken out of labs and away from cages, says Michael H. Parsons, an urban environmentalist and visiting research scholar in Fordham's Department of Biological Sciences. "We felt that some of the results in the lab don't equate to what's in the field," he states.

While rat behavior has been conducted for years in controlled environments, Parsons explains, that's irrelevant to the behaviors of wild rats. Comparing lab rats to wild rats is like comparing a Chihuahua and a wolf, he says, adding that the behavior for any species would be different in a cage than in the wild. Because little research has taken place in rats' natural setting, he says, "No one understands the behavior of city rats, millions scurrying between our feet. No one knows what they're seeing."

When Parsons launched his rat-tracking project to understand the animals' reactions to scents, he was following up on similar research involving kangaroos in Australia. Several years ago, when he arrived in the United States, he began looking into one of cities' most ubiquitous animals. Rats are nocturnal, so their vision is limited and their sense of smell is heightened. That makes them highly responsive to scents, which could thus be used to control their behaviors, or to catch or sterilize them.

The researchers needed to track what individual rats do and where they travel over a span of time, Parsons says, and that required microchips to uniquely identify each animal. One of the project's greatest challenges was to find a business or property manager willing to have researchers catch rats on their property, then chip the animals and release them again. A Brooklyn waste-recycling site, which has asked to remain unnamed, agreed to do so, with the stipulation that the rats would be exterminated at the conclusion of the research. The research is currently still ongoing.

Fordham researchers worked with an animal-tracking technology firm, then began partnering with UID after the first company went out of operation. UID provides identification solutions that leverage implantable transponders (microchips), external readers, and customized data-collection software for researchers. The company focuses on laboratory animal identification, as well as pets, wildlife and zoological solutions, according to Matt Ruiter, UID's CSO, "but we were happy to custom build an application for less conventional settings," he says.

To enable their research on wild rats, Fordham and Columbia set up live traps to capture 50 rodents, then sedated the animals and injected a UID LF proprietary chip between each animal's shoulder blades. The unique ID number encoded on the chip was linked in UID's software to the description of the specific rat, such as its sex and approximate age and size. The rats were then released.

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