Next time you see animals sniffing in each other's presence, there might be more happening than you think. New research suggests that a humble intake of breath actually allows rats to communicate with each other.
In a series of experiments, carried out at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, researchers used radio telemetry recordings of nasal respiration to identify how rats reacted when others sniffed in their direction.
The results, published in Current Biology, suggest that when rats of a higher status sniff in the direction of other rats, subordinates decrease their breathing rate. The researchers claim it's akin to the rats saying "don't mind me". Daniel Wesson, the lead researcher, explains:
"We know that rats and other animals can communicate through vocalisations, physical contact, odours, and also visual displays. To find that there was an undiscovered form of communication these animals had been using right in front of us this whole time was truly a neat experience."
In fact, when smaller rats failed to lower their breathing rate, dominant rats would often attack them! All of which suggests that there is far, far more to the simple sniffing that animals do than we may have previously thought — and that might help us understand the complex communication systems used by animals more clearly. Dr Doolittle would be proud. [Current Biology]