By placing rats in special cages that allow them to give food only to another rat (not themselves), these researchers found that rats will trade grooming for help with getting food. In fact, the more help they got, the more grooming they gave. Maybe it’s time to update the old idiom: “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine… or hook me up with some chow.”
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The prevalence of reciprocal cooperation in non-human animals is hotly debated. Part of this dispute rests on the assumption that reciprocity means paying like with like. However, exchanges between social partners may involve different commodities and services. Hitherto, there is no experimental evidence that animals other than primates exchange different commodities among conspecifics based on the decision rules of direct reciprocity.
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Test rats traded allogrooming against food provisioning, and vice versa, thereby acting by the rules of direct reciprocity. This might indicate that reciprocal altruism among non-human animals is much more widespread than currently assumed.