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Can rats recognize faces?

Can rats recognize faces?

Rats are highly intelligent and social animals that rely on sniffing, seeing, and listening to identify other rats. There has been ongoing research into whether rats have the ability to recognize and distinguish between human faces. While the jury is still out, there are some compelling findings that suggest rats have advanced visual and cognitive skills that allow them to tell people apart.

Do rats have good vision?

Rats have relatively good vision compared to many other rodents. Their eyes are positioned on the sides of their head, giving them a wide field of view. Rats can see color, although they have poor visual acuity and cannot detect fine details. However, their visual system is well-adapted for detecting movement and distinguishing broad shapes and patterns.

Some key facts about rat vision:

  • Rats have two types of photoreceptor cells in their eyes – rods for low light vision and cones for color vision.
  • Their visual acuity is estimated to be around 20/600, meaning they cannot make out fine details but can see shapes, movements, and colors.
  • Rats have a visual field spanning nearly 360 degrees around their head due to the positioning of their eyes.
  • They cannot see red light but have good sensitivity to blue, green, and ultraviolet light.
  • Rats rely more heavily on their senses of smell, touch, taste and hearing than their vision for navigating the environment.

So in summary, rats have vision sufficient to recognize general shapes, colors, movements, and looming stimuli, but their world is dominated more by smell than sight. Still, their visual capabilities allow for the potential ability to distinguish human faces.

Rat facial recognition studies

There have been a handful of studies investigating whether rats can learn to distinguish between human faces. Rats have been trained in facial recognition tasks and have demonstrated the ability to discriminate different people.

2001 study with portraits

One of the first studies on rat facial recognition was published in 2001 by Brooks et al. The researchers trained rats to press levers in response to a portrait of one person over another. The rats were first trained to differentiate between two abstract paintings. They were then shown 40 different pairs of human faces and could reliably discriminate between the two faces when a food reward was given for choosing the correct portrait.

This suggests rats can tell the difference between human faces beyond simple features like hair color or gender when given reinforcement training. However, critics argued the rats may have relied on simple visual cues rather than actual facial recognition.

2015 touchscreen study

A more recent 2015 study by Anpilov et al. used computer touchscreens to train rats to distinguish faces. The rats were shown two face photos simultaneously and learned to touch one face image consistently to get a food reward. They were able to discriminate 20 different pairs of human faces with over 80% accuracy.

The researchers progressively made the discrimination task harder by showing more face pairs and introducing different head angles and lighting. The rats’ performance dropped but remained above chance, indicating they relied on more than simple visual cues. The study suggests rats can generalize facial identities despite shifts in lighting, head angle, and facial expression.

Brain scans during face viewing

Going beyond behavior studies, neuroscience research has also investigated rat brain activity in response to human faces. Bergs et al. (2018) used functional MRI scans to image rat brain activity while showing them photos of human faces. Distinct areas of the rat brain showed increased activation when viewing upright faces compared to inverted faces or objects.

This indicates specialized face processing that is not just a response to visual stimulation. The rat brain may recognize faces as distinct and important social visual stimuli much like the human and monkey brain does.

Are rats using facial recognition abilities in normal interactions?

The behavioral training and neuroscience studies demonstrate rats have the capability to distinguish human faces. But do pet rats use these faculties in their normal daily social interactions with people? There are some indications they do:

  • Pet owners often report that their rats seem to recognize them vs. strangers.
  • Rats get highly anxious when exposed to unfamiliar humans, suggesting they discern between known and unknown people.
  • Rats behave less anxiously with their known human caretakers compared to strangers, even in identical environments.
  • Rats can be trained to press levers or perform other tasks in response to their owner’s face.

So while not definitive, rats do appear to utilize facial recognition abilities to identify familiar vs. novel people in real-world social settings. They likely rely on a combination of facial cues, smell, voices, and contextual information to discriminate between people they know and strangers.

Factors influencing rat facial recognition

If rats can recognize human faces, what visual and cognitive abilities allow them to do so? And what factors make facial recognition easier or harder for rats?

Visual factors

  • Lighting conditions – rats had more difficulty distinguishing faces with shadows, low lighting, or colored lighting.
  • Viewing distance – faces were harder to discriminate from longer distances due to the limits on visual acuity.
  • Angle of view – non-front view faces caused a decline in rat face discrimination performance.
  • Facial expression – changing expressions made faces slightly harder to recognize.
  • Facial hair, glasses – addition of disguising features impairs recognition.

Cognitive factors

  • Individual identity – rats more easily distinguish owners vs. strangers.
  • Face familiarity – repeated exposures to faces improves recognition.
  • Reinforcement training – food rewards motivate rats to remember faces.
  • Social motivation – interest in interacting with people enhances attention to faces.

So in optimal conditions with familiar faces, frontal views, consistent lighting, and rewards for recognizing individuals, rats demonstrate robust facial recognition capacities. Their motivation to interact with humans also amplifies these abilities.

Neural basis of facial recognition in rats

For rats to be able to distinguish human faces, they need specific visual processing skills as well as higher cognitive mechanisms for discrimination and memory. Understanding the neural basis of facial recognition offers insight into how rats are capable of this skill.

Visual pathways

Information about faces perceived by the eyes travels first along the optic nerve to the thalamus, then to the primary visual cortex, and higher cortical regions:

  • Optic nerve – carries signals from retina to thalamus.
  • Thalamus – relays sensory data to the cortex.
  • Primary visual cortex – detects simple features like edges, motion, orientation.
  • Extrastriate areas – integrate visual features into complex objects.
  • Temporal cortex – processes faces and facial identity.

Rats have a dedicated pathway for processing visual facial information from the eyes leading ultimately to the temporal lobe. Damage to this pathway impairs facial recognition abilities.

Brain regions involved

Brain Region Role in Facial Recognition
Temporal cortex Face perception and discrimination.
Orbital frontal cortex Decision making and reward processing.
Perirhinal cortex Facial memory formation and retrieval.

The temporal lobes allow rats to perceive faces as distinct visual patterns. The orbitofrontal cortex drives reward-motivated learning of faces. The perirhinal cortex encodes memories of individual faces. Damage to these areas impairs facial recognition.


Chemicals that alter brain cell activity also influence facial recognition in rats:

  • Oxytocin – enhances social perception and face memory.
  • Dopamine – important for reward-driven learning.
  • Acetylcholine – modulates visual attention and memory encoding.

Increasing these neuromodulators in the brain may potentially boost rats’ motivation and ability to distinguish faces through training.

Why can rats recognize faces?

The fact that rats can recognize human faces may seem surprising given their tiny brains. But rats actually have excellent general learning and memory capacities on par with other highly intelligent animals. Facial recognition emerges from an interplay of visual, social, cognitive and reward mechanisms.

Visual discrimination

Rats have sufficient visual acuity and visual processing pathways to allow discrimination of face-like patterns as distinct from other objects. This basic perceptual ability allows them to see faces as unique.

Social nature

Rats are highly social animals that live in complex colonies. They use facial cues to identify other rats and assess social information. This innate social nature allows them to extend facial recognition to interacting with humans.

Associative learning

Rats are capable of associative learning in which a visual stimulus becomes linked with a reward or meaning. Through training, they associate human faces with identities, rewards, and social significance.

Excellent memory

Rats have highly developed memory networks that allow them to remember learned associations. Their long-term memory for faces aids facial recognition.


Rats are driven to affiliate with humans through play, petting, food rewards and social interaction. This motivation amplifies their interest in human faces.

So rats have the right combination of visual capacity, social brains, flexible learning, good memory and motivation to enable human facial recognition and distinction as a useful social tool.

Outstanding questions

While existing research provides compelling evidence for facial recognition abilities in rats, some questions remain:

  • Can rats recognize emotional expressions in human faces?
  • How precisely can rats discriminate facial features and identity?
  • Can rats recognize other rats’ faces?
  • What is the capacity limit on the number of faces a rat can reliably recognize?
  • How critical are motion cues vs. static facial photos for rat face recognition?

Further studies systematically investigating these questions through behavioral tasks, neural recordings, and pharmacological manipulations will shed more light on the extent and mechanisms of facial recognition in rats. The full spectrum of rats’ face discrimination capacities has yet to be defined.


In summary, rats exhibit a robust ability to visually discriminate and identify human faces. Their sensory and cognitive abilities allow them to recognize their owners, train to identify faces associated with rewards, and distinguish familiar from novel people. While rats rely heavily on other senses, their vision and memory enables surprisingly advanced facial recognition. Their brain’s social nature appears tuned to seek out human faces and extract social cues from facial information just as they do from other rats’ faces. Rats opportunistically utilize their learning and memory prowess to identify humans they frequently interact with. So when your pet rat stares at you with its beady eyes, it likely knows exactly who you are.