by Howard Hagerman
For this lab you will be examining or dissecting: 1) the skeletal system; 2) some of the muscles;
3) the digestive system; 4) the respiratory system; 5) the uro-genital system; and 6) some of the
circulatory system of a rat. You will need to learn the locations of the structures in bold type in
this dissection guide, and also to learn the functions of those marked with an asterisk (*). You
may want to consult your text beforehand for the functions of the starred structures. It is often
helpful to work in pairs on this dissection.
On the demonstration table there is a skeleton of a rat. Use it and the drawing to find the bones
All vertebrate skeletons can be divided into two major parts: the axial skeleton and the
appendicular skeleton, The axial skeleton consists of the skull (both the cranium and the two
mandibles), the vertebral column, the sternum and the ribs connecting the sternum to the
The appendicular skeleton consists of the pectoral (shoulder) girdle, the pelvic (hip) girdle and
the limbs. In rats the pectoral girdle consists of the scapula and clavicle. The pelvic girdle is
composed of 3 bones that have fused together — the ilium, ischium and pubis. The forelimb
consists of the long bones — the humerus, radius, and ulna — and the bones of the wrist and
hand. The hindlimb is divided the same way, except that the long bones are called the femur,
tibia, and fibula.
As you look at the rat skeleton, try and answer these questions. Some of them are
straightforward, others have no one true answer. How does the joint between the cranium and
mandibles work? Where does the eye fit on the cranium? Why is there a bony arch (the
zygomatic arch) on the side of the cranium? Why do the different vertebrae have different
shapes? Why do rats have tails? What is the difference between the way the pectoral girdle
attaches to the vertebral column and the way the pelvic girdle attaches? Why is there this
difference? Why are there holes in the pelvic girdle? What sorts of motions does the joint
between the pelvis and the femur allow? What sort is allowed at the knee? At the elbow? Why
do forearms have two bones and upper arms only one?
Before you begin dissecting your rat, there are some antomicaI terms you need to know to
understand these dissecting instructions. Anterior refers to towards the head end of the rat;
posterior refers to towards the tail end. Dorsal refers to towards the back of an animal; ventral
towards the front or downwards side; lateral towards the sides. Proximal means towards the
center of the body; distal means farther away from the body. All of these terms are relative,depending on what structures you are referring to. For example, the elbow is proximal to the:
wrist, but distal to the shoulder.
You will be looking at only a few groups of muscles - those of the trunk and the upper arm. To
see these muscles, you need to skin most of your rat. On the ventral side of your rat, pinch tip a
small fold of skin in the center of the abdomen and make a small cut. As you proceed, make sure
you are only cutting the skin, not the muscles underneath. Begin lengthening your initial cut
anteriorly on the abdomen, eventually stopping at the neck. As you go, reach between the skin
and the muscles with your fingers or a blunt probe and separate the skin from the muscles. At
some points, you may need to use a scalpel to cut muscles or ligaments running to the skin.
After you reach the neck, go back to your initial cut and lengthen it posteriorly to about where
the legs join the trunk. Then cut laterally on both sides all the way around the dorsal side. Make
the same lateral cut around the neck. Then make a cut from the ventral midline out along each
arm to about half-way down the forearm. Then cut around the arm. At this point the skin can be
pulled free from the body wall and removed entirely. Save the skin to wrap around your rat if
you need to stop and begin again at another time.
Now you're ready to find particular muscles. Use the diagram to find the muscles described.
Place your rat, ventral side down, on the dissecting tray. The external oblique is a thin sheet of
muscle reaching from the ventral side around to the center of the back. It is most apparent on the
sides of the abdomen. Overlying this are two sets of triangular muscles stretching from the
shoulder down to the midline. The larger muscle underneath is the latissimus dorsi; the smaller,
uppermost muscle is the spinotrapezius. Anterior to the spinotrapezius and reaching from the
midline towards the shouder is the spinodeltoideus. This covers the beginning of the biceps
brachii at the proximal part of the humerus. Posterior to the biceps brachii is the triceps
Now place your rat ventral side up. Note the external oblique on this side. Running along the
midline in the center of the abdomen is the rectus abdominis. Anterior to this are two sets of
muscles — the pectoralis minor and pectoralis major.
A note on muscle function: Each muscle can be divided into three parts - an origin that is
attached to a fixed structure, a belly in the middle, and an insertion of the muscle onto a bone
that moves when the muscle is contracted. For example, the biceps brachii originates on the
scapula and inserts on the radius. When it contracts, the forearm is drawn toward the upper arm.
In opposition to the biceps brachii is the triceps brachii, which straightens out the forearm.
Digestive and Respiratory Systems
To see these and the other systems, you must dissect your rat further. Start by cutting with your
scissors from the corners of the mouth back to the ears. Pry the jaws apart and complete the cut
so that the mouth can be opened and the pharynx exposed. Note the soft palate and the ridged
hard palate anterior to it. At the base of the tongue is an opening, the glottis, into the larynx.
The epiglottis is the tiny triangular flap that guards the glottis. The trachea* extends from the
larynx to the point of branching just before the lungs. To see the trachea and the esophagus*just dorsal to the trachea, you may need to cut through the throat muscles on the ventral side.
To see the organs of the thoracic and abdominal cavities, begin cutting through the body wall
muscles just anterior to the genital opening and continue anteriorly just to one side of the midline
on the ventral side. Cut through the ribs in the thoracic cavity and continue up to the throat
region. There find the diaphragm* and cut it away from the body wall. At the posterior end of
the abdominal cavity, cut laterally through the external oblique until you can pin back the ventral
side muscles and expose the organs underneath. If necessary, make another pair of lateral cuts
toward the anterior end, but be sure not to cut through any organs.
In the thoracic cavity note the heart* and lungs*. In some rats there may be a thymus gland
covering the anterior half of the heart, but in older rats this gland disappears. Trace the trachea
as it divides and goes into the lungs.
In the abdominal cavity , pick up the esophagus as it comes through the diaphragm and note
where the esophagus enters the stomach*. At the posterior end of the stomach there is a
muscular valve called the pyloric sphincter; this leads into the small intestine*. Over the
stomach and quite conspicuous is the liver*. Most mammals have a gall bladder near the liver;
rats do not. The spleen* is the flattened, reddish organ lying just to the left and posterior to the
stomach. The intestines and other organs are attached to the dorsal wall of the body cavity by
sheets of membranes. These are the mesenteries. In the mesentery that stretches along the
stomach, spleen and small intestine, there is a diffuse, glandular organ called the pancreas*.
Now follow he small intestine all the way along until it becomes the large intestine*. At the
junction between the small and large imtestines, there is a blind pouch called the caecum. Be
careful not to tear the mesenteries as you examine the intestines. At the end of the large intestine
there is an expanded portion called the rectum, which opens to the exterior through the anus.
If you move the intestines to one side, you will see one of the two kidneys* imbedded in the
dorsal body wall. From these, ureters lead to the urinary bladder*. The ureters are small
white tubes and are often difficult to find. The urinary bladder empties to the outside through the
urethra. Be sure you can locate the urethral opening on both male and female rats.
The reproductive system of female rats is relatively simple. You should know both male and
female systems. In the female the prominent uterine horns* pass dorsally to the bladder and
ureters. Where the horns join dorsal to the urethra, is the vagina* which opens to the exterior
through the vaginal opening. On the exterior, the anus is just ventral to the tail, the vaginal
opening is ventral to the anus, and the urethral opening is ventral to the vagina. At the anterior
end of each uterine horn there is a short, convoluted oviduct which opens into a transparent
pocket around the small, round ovary. Often the ovary is hard to find. Try feeling in the fat at
the end of the uterus for a small, hard, round body. Some female rats may be pregnant and have
small embryos in the uterine horns. If yours is pregnant, cut longitudinally along the horns and
observe the embryos.The male reproductive system is more complicated than the female's. Locate the male's scrotum
and cut longitudinally through just the skin to locate the testes*. Separate the skin from the
testes and continue the cut up to the abdominal cavity. Notice the epididymis lying around each
testis. Find the vas deferens* that leads from each testis to the urethra. You will probably have
to cut through some muscles in the pelvis area to locate some of these structures. Be careful as
you do so. To either side of the bladder are two sets of glands. The smaller, round, more
posterior ones are the prostate glands. The larger pair of glands are the seminal vesicles, which
are actually two different glands — the vesicular glands and the coagulating glands. Follow
the urethra as it goes through the penis*. In males the bladder and the testes both empty to the
outside through the urethra.
Go back to the heart in the thoracic cavity. (Right and left in this description refers to the rat's
right and left). Find the right and left atria. Note that the left ventricle occupies the larger half
of the heart; the right ventricle is much smaller. Dependlng on your rat, you may or may not be
able to see the other blood vessels described here. Use the demonstration rat to help find these.
The posterior and anterior venae cavae return blood from the posterior and anterior parts of the
body to the right atrium. From there the venous blood moves to the right ventricle, from which it
is pumped to the lungs via the pulmonary trunk. The pulmonary trunk splits into two
pulmonary arteries, one leading to each lung. Oxygenated blood returns from the lungs through
the pulmonary veins, which are difficult to see, to the left atrium. From there it moves to the left
ventricle and then Is pumped to the body via the ascending aorta.