Do scientists dream of laboratory mice?

16 December 2014

Posted by: Dr Elisabeth Harley

Category: Staff blog

In the light of a new survey asking scientists about their experiences and emotions working with laboratory mice, UAR Policy and Communications Officer, Dr Liz Harley, recounts her own experiences dreaming about unusual laboratory animals.

Stalk eyed fliesAs a PhD student one of my most vivid, recurring dreams always took place in one of our controlled temperature laboratories. In these rooms were housed hundreds of stalk-eyed flies in clear Perspex boxes and plastic pots. The air is hot and humid, mimicking the tropical climate that these animals come from. Each container opening has a stretchy mesh tube over it, secured with an elastic band, so that you can reach in and replace the flies’ food and water without them all escaping. But elastic bands don’t last well in humid conditions, and in my dream I watch as one by one they snap, releasing clouds of experimental flies into the room. With visions of my data quite literally flying out of the window and into the air vents, I would wake up.

I suspect that dreaming about your research, whether it involves animals or not, is common among scientists. Who after all has not had a work-related dream? Scientific news website io9.com is currently asking for people who work with rodents in laboratories to complete an anonymous online survey about their experiences as an animal researcher. The 19-question survey covers welfare issues, common misconceptions, and perhaps most interestingly emotional attachment and dreams.

Io9 decided to conduct the survey after the publication of an article entitled “Why the U.S. is One of the Cruellest Places in the World for Lab Animals” drew widespread criticism from their readers for being loose with the facts and heavily featuring activist viewpoints. Following a public apology the website has acknowledged that “many of us learn about research on animals from groups like PETA, who advocate for the abolition of all animal research. It's time that the public has access to the other side of the story.” This response by the website is admirable, and the results of the survey could be fascinating.

I have never worked with mice personally, but during my life in science I was fortunate enough to work with fish, birds, and a lot of insects. I invariably had vivid dreams about all of them. While it may seem unlikely to form an emotional attachment to stalk-eyed flies, I assure you that it is possible.

Zebra finchMy first encounter with animal research came from working with zebra finches. Zebra finches are unbelievably cute little birds that make fascinating research subjects for studying animal behaviour. Their songs are not dissimilar to the noises made by an old dial-up modem, and with enough practice it is possible to distinguish between many different individuals through their songs. And once you can tell them apart you start to notice their different personalities.

Male number 33 for example was particularly chatty, very bold, but not very good at building nests. In a species where poor nest-building can be a sexual deal-breaker, this was a problem. Time and again my dreams revolved around standing in the finch lab, surrounded by their constant chatter, taking detailed observations of 33 dropping nest material all over the floor, and looking confused when females seemed disinterested in his efforts.

As I have probably illustrated, it is very easy to become emotionally attached to a zebra finch. By contrast, insects do not tend to inspire particular feelings of attachment in humans. The differences between individuals are so subtle and infinitesimally small as to be essentially invisible to us. But it was still possible to become particularly attached to certain species. One of the stars of my thesis was Teleopsis dalmanni, a beautiful South East Asian species with striped wings, shiny brown colouring and vivid red eyes. They live in the jungles of Malaysia, and studying them in the field involved a lot of careful manoeuvring through dense rattan forest in the dark (which led to some pretty vivid, exciting dreams).

Diasemopsis meigenii on the other hand were the chilled out ones, moving slowly about their containers and around the lab whenever they escaped. It was not uncommon to find one sitting on the corner of your computer screen, as if to check that you were giving it a good write up in your latest paper.

So I await the results of io9’s survey with keen interest. If scientists do indeed dream of laboratory mice (as well as birds and insects), then I think the outcomes could make for fascinating reading.

If you work with rodents for science and are interested in completing the survey, it can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/?sm=w0zAPCRcL7qqupCG3UrP%2f%2bZW2MfrgcnepDvTKE1gzQg%3d