Have you ever wondered why your pet mouse or hamster likes to run on the wheel in its cage? Is it because it’s bored, stressed, or just having fun? Well, it turns out that running on wheels is not a behavior exclusive to captive rodents. In fact, wild animals also enjoy a bit of exercise on the wheel, according to a study.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was conducted by two neurophysiologists in the Netherlands who wanted to find out whether wheel-running is an activity that’s taken up only by animals in captivity such as lab mice. They placed a cage-like contraption containing a running wheel in two spots in nature where feral mice live — in a green urban area and in a dune area not accessible to the public. A camera recorded every visit by an animal.
The video recordings showed hundreds of instances of creatures visiting and using the running wheel over the course of a few years in the two locations. Most of the time it was wild mice who came for some exercise, but the researchers noted that shrews, rats, snails, slugs and frogs also “ran” on the wheel.
“Of these, only the snails caused haphazard rather than directional movement of the wheel and were therefore excluded from the analysis,” the researchers said.
The researchers noted that the wild animals used the running wheel even when there was no food in the cage to entice them.
“Some animals seem to use the wheel unintentionally, but mice and some shrews, rats and frogs were seen to leave the wheel and then enter it again within minutes in order to continue wheel running. This observation indicates that wheel running may well be intentional rather than unintentional for these animals,” the study said.
The researchers suggested that this indicates that running on wheels is not a neurotic or stereotypic behavior caused by captivity, but rather an elective and enjoyable one.
The researchers claimed that the findings could help lead to a better understanding of humans’ motivations (or lack thereof) for exercise.
“Wheel running is often used in the laboratory for triggering enhanced activity levels, despite the common objection that this behaviour is an artefact of captivity and merely signifies neurosis or stereotypy,” they wrote.
“If wheel running is indeed caused by captive housing, wild mice are not expected to use a running wheel in nature. This however, to our knowledge, has never been tested.”
The researchers also acknowledged that their study could be seen as a bit of anthropomorphizing, as no one has been able to prove that animals other than humans experience emotions.
“The researchers claim the animals ran on the wheels because they enjoyed it, which could be a little bit of anthropomorphizing, as no one has been able to prove that animals other than humans experience emotions,” they wrote.
Still, they argued that their experiments should put to rest the argument about whether mice in the lab are running on wheels because they live in cages—they’ll do it anywhere they find one.
So next time you see your pet mouse or hamster spinning on its wheel, don’t feel sorry for it. It might just be having a blast. And who knows, maybe you’ll find some wild animals joining in on the fun too.
– Animals in the wild found to use running wheel if given the choice (w/ Video), Phys.org, May 21, 2014
– Wild Animals Like Running on the Hamster Wheel Too, NBC News, May 21, 2014
– Wild animals enjoy running in wheels just like lab mice, Upworthy, December 13, 2021