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Researchers in France have discovered that a monotonous diet of corn causes hamsters to exhibit some unusual behavior—cannibalism.

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A new paper outlines the efforts of scientists at the University of Strasbourg to determine why the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) has been dying off at an alarming rate.

The hamster is critically endangered in western Europe and research into the cause seemed to hit a brick wall. At first, it was theorized that pesticides and industrial ploughing might be to blame. Perhaps the hamsters underground layers were being destroyed, leading to the population drop off. But that was determined to not be the cause.

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Researchers led by Mathilde Tissier decided to look into the hamster’s diet. Previously, the rodent’s diet consisted of grains, roots and insects. But the regions in which it’s numbers were dropping have been taken over by the industrial farming of corn.

The Guardian explains how tests were carried out:

A first set of lab experiments with wild specimens compared wheat and corn-based diets, with side dishes of clover or worms. There was virtually no difference in the number of pups born, or the basic nutritional value of the different menus. But when it came to survival rates, the difference was dramatic.

About four-fifths of the pups born of mothers feasting on wheat-and-clover or wheat-and-worms were weaned. Only 5%, however, of the baby hamsters whose mothers ate corn instead of wheat made it that far. What was most disturbing is how they perished.

The horrific results found that mothers were kept their pups with their stash of maize and eventually ate them alive. They also developed “black-tongues” and began acting erratically, “climbing and pounding their feeders.”

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“Improperly cooked maize-based diets have been associated with higher rates of homicide, suicide and cannibalism in humans,” the researchers pointed out. A deficiency of the vitamin B3 has been traced to a condition called pellagra. It’s believed that three million people died from pellagra between 1735 and 1940.

So, the scientists decided to test out hamster subjects with a purely maize-based diet but added B3 for some. Suddenly the hamsters being given additional vitamins started doing normal hamster activities instead of devouring their offspring like maniacs.

While the European hamster is considered a pest by farmers maintaining bio-diversity is important to the ecosystem and in France it’s important to the law. The European Union’s highest court, ruled in 2011 that the country must adjust policies to protect the hamster or face fines up to $24.6 million. According to the researchers, it’s clear that the best policy to fix this situation is a concerted effort “to restore a diverse range of plants in agriculture schemes.” Hopefully, freakin’ cannibalism as a symptom will be enough to cause action on the problem.

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[The Guardian]