Trait aggressiveness does not predict social dominance of rats in the Visible Burrow System

Bauke Buwalda*, Jaap M. Koolhaas, Sietse F de Boer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Hierarchical social status greatly influences health and well-being in mammals, including humans. The social rank of an individual is established during competitive encounters with conspecifics. Intuitively, therefore, social dominance and aggressiveness may seem intimately linked. Yet, whether an aggressive personality trait may predispose individuals to a particular rank in a social colony setting remains largely unclear. Here we tested the hypothesis that high trait aggressiveness in Wildtype Groningen (WTG) rats, as assessed in a classic resident intruder offensive aggression paradigm predicts social dominance in a mixed-sex colony housing using the Visible Burrow System (VBS). We also hypothesized that hierarchical steepness, as reflected in the number and intensity of the social conflicts, positively correlates with the average level of trait aggressiveness of the male subjects in the VBS.

Clear and stable hierarchical ranking was formed within a few days in VBS colonies as indicated and reflected by a rapid loss of body weight in subordinates which stabilized after 2-3 days. Social conflicts, that occurred mainly during these first few days, also resulted in bite wounds in predominantly subordinate males. Data clearly showed that trait aggressiveness does not predict dominance status. The most aggressive male in a mixed sex group of conspecifics living in a closed VBS environment does not always become the dominant male. In addition, data did not convincingly indicate that in colonies with only highly aggressive males, agonistic interactions were more intense. Number of bite wounds and body weight loss did not positively correlate with trait-aggressiveness of subordinates. In this study, rats from this wild-derived rat strain behave differently from Long-Evans laboratory rats that have been studied up till now in many experiments using the VBS. Strain dependent differences in the capacity to display appropriate social behavior fitting an adaptive strategy to a high or low social ranking position probably play an important role in the level of perceived stress in mixed sex social colonies like the VBS. (c) 2017 Elsevier Inc All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-143
Number of pages10
JournalPhysiology & Behavior
Publication statusPublished - 1-Sep-2017


  • Social rat colony
  • Hierarchy
  • Social ranking
  • Stress of subordination
  • Rat
  • Visible Burrow System

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