Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Burrowing in rodents: a sensitive method for detecting behavioral dysfunction


Virtually all rodents display burrowing behavior, yet measurement of this behavior has not yet been standardized or formalized. Previously, parameters such as the latency to burrow and the complexity of the burrow systems in substrate-filled boxes in the laboratory or naturalistic outdoor environments have been assessed. We describe here a simple protocol that can quantitatively measure burrowing in laboratory rodents, using a simple apparatus that can be placed in the home cage. The test is very cheap to run and requires minimal experimenter training, yet seems sensitive to a variety of treatments, such as the early stages of prion disease in mice, mouse strain differences, lesions of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in mice, also effects of lipopolysaccharide and IL-1β in rats. Other species such as hamsters, gerbils and Egyptian spiny mice also burrow in this apparatus, and with suitable size modification probably almost any burrowing animal could be tested in it. The simplicity, sensitivity and robustness of burrowing make it ideal for assessing genetically modified animals, which in most cases would be mice. The test is run from late afternoon until the next morning, but only two measurements need to be taken.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Schematic diagram and photograph of a burrow.


  1. Dudek, B.C., Adams, N., Boice, R. & Abbott, M.E. Genetic influences on digging behaviours in mice (Mus musculus) in laboratory and seminatural settings. J. Comp. Psychol. 97, 249–259 (1983).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Deacon, R.M.J., Raley, J.M., Perry, V.H. & Rawlins, J.N.P. Burrowing into prion disease. Neuroreport 12, 2053–2057 (2001).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Deacon, R.M.J. Digging and marble burying in mice: simple methods for in vivo identification of biological impacts. Nature Protocols, DOI: 10.1038/nprot.2006.20

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Pinel, J.P.J. & Treit, D. Burying as a defensive response in rats. J. Comp. Physiol. Psychol. 92, 708–712 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Guenther, K., Deacon, R.M.J., Perry, V.H. & Rawlins, J.N.P. Early behavioural changes in scrapie-affected mice and the influence of dapsone. Eur. J. Neurosci., 14, 401–409 (2001).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Contet, C., Rawlins, J.N.P. & Deacon, R.M.J. A comparison of 129S2/SvHsd and C57BL/6JOlaHsd mice on a test battery assessing sensorimotor, affective and cognitive behaviours: implications for the study of genetically modified mice. Behav. Brain Res. 124, 33–46 (2001).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Deacon, R.M.J., Croucher. A. & Rawlins, J.N.P. Hippocampal cytotoxic lesion effects on species-typical behaviors in mice. Behav. Brain Res. 132, 203–213 (2002).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Deacon R.M.J., Penny, C. & Rawlins, J.N.P. Effects of medial prefrontal cortex cytotoxic lesions in mice. Behav. Brain Res. 139, 139–155 (2003).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Deacon R.M.J., Reisel, D., Perry, V.H. & Rawlins, J.N.P. Hippocampal scrapie infection impairs operant DRL performance in mice. Behav. Brain Res. 157, 99–105 (2005).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Shinomiya, K., Fujii, Y., Sugimoto, Y., Azuma, N., Tokunaga, S., Kitazumi, K. & Kamei, C. Effect of paroxetine on marble-burying behavior in mice. Methods Find Exp Clin Pharmacol. 10, 685–687 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by grant GR065438MA from the Wellcome Trust to the Oxford OXION group.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert M J Deacon.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Video 1

A hooded Lister rat burrowing. The setup, with a transparent tube and colored granite chips, was specifically for demonstration purposes. Film courtesy of D. Anthony and S. Campbell, Dept. of Pharmacology, University of Oxford. (MOV 35742 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Deacon, R. Burrowing in rodents: a sensitive method for detecting behavioral dysfunction. Nat Protoc 1, 118–121 (2006).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing