Manual dexterity of mice during food-handling involves the thumb and a set of fast basic movements

John M. Barrett*, Martinna G. Raineri Tapies, Gordon M.G. Shepherd

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The small first digit (D1) of the mouse’s hand resembles a volar pad, but its thumb-like anatomy suggests ethological importance for manipulating small objects. To explore this possibility, we recorded high-speed close-up video of mice eating seeds and other food items. Analyses of ethograms and automated tracking with DeepLabCut revealed multiple distinct microstructural features of food-handling. First, we found that mice indeed made extensive use of D1 for dexterous manipulations. In particular, mice used D1 to hold food with either of two grip types: a pincer-type grasp, or a “thumb-hold” grip, pressing with D1 from the side. Thumb-holding was preferentially used for handling smaller items, with the smallest items held between the two D1s alone. Second, we observed that mice cycled rapidly between two postural modes while feeding, with the hands positioned either at the mouth (oromanual phase) or resting below (holding phase). Third, we identified two highly stereotyped D1-related movements during feeding, including an extraordinarily fast (~20 ms) “regrip” maneuver, and a fast (~100 ms) “sniff” maneuver. Lastly, in addition to these characteristic simpler movements and postures, we also observed highly complex movements, including rapid D1-assisted rotations of food items and dexterous simultaneous double-gripping of two food fragments. Manipulation behaviors were generally conserved for different food types, and for head-fixed mice. Wild squirrels displayed a similar repertoire of D1-related movements. Our results define, for the mouse, a set of kinematic building-blocks of manual dexterity, and reveal an outsized role for D1 in these actions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0226774
JournalPloS one
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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