European hamster in a field

Corn Diet Causing Hamsters To Turn Cannibal, Devour Offspring: Humans Susceptible As Well, Research Reveals

A diet consisting of corn has prompted a situation among a population of hamsters in northeastern France wherein the females are devouring their offspring, researchers have found. The species, Cricetus cricetus, is endangered in the western part of the continent, more prevalent in the east. And scientists have also found, apart from the disturbing trend of cannibalism, that those in western Europe are slowly starving to death.

Agence France-Presse reported this week that a species of hamster in western Europe is dying off because at least half of its adult population has gone cannibal. The hamster, existing as it does in a virtual ocean of industrially grown corn, was once quite omnivorous, living off a diet of grains, roots and insects. Now, their environment is semi-sterile, a controlled habitat of maize. And since its food supply has also been relegated to corn, scientists have discovered that the collective diet of the hamsters is severely deficient in vitamins — specifically B3, or Niacin.

“There’s clearly an imbalance,” European hamster expert Gerard Baumgart, President of the Research Centre for Environmental Protection in Alsace, told AFP Friday. “Our hamster habitat is collapsing.”

Mathilde Tissier and her research team at the University of Strasbourg began looking into whether or not diet might affect the reproductivity of the hamsters in the wild.

Earlier work looking into the possibility of the hamsters’ diet playing a role in their reproductive rate saw scientists looking into pesticides and mechanized plowing, the latter disturbing the burrowing rodents’ burrows (especially if done while the creatures were in hibernation). Only later would studies turn to diet as a possible culprit in the population reduction.

Those lab experiments would see wild specimens where wheat and corn-based diets were compared (side dishes of clover or worms were provided as well). The nutritional value of the offerings was virtually indistinguishable.

Consuming these diets, the number of pups born to the hamsters were nearly the same. However, survival rates among the pups were dramatically different.

Rows in a field of corn
Corn is devoid of Niacin, or Vitamin B3, a deficiency that can, in its extreme, cause symptoms that might lead to cannibalism. [Image by Matusciac Alexandru/Shutterstock]

Four-fifths of the hamster pups born of mothers eating wheat and clover or wheat and worms were weaned. Only five percent of the pups whose mothers ate corn instead of wheat survived. And it wasn’t natural causes or disease that saw the babies die. It was cannibalism.

“Females stored their pups with their hoards of maize before eating them,” scientists found. “Pups were still alive at that time.”

The cannibal hamsters also exhibited other signs of abnormal behavior, running in circles and “climbing and pounding their feeders” when scientists entered the room.

Females’ blood samples are so thick, scientists have a difficult time drawing them. They also presented with swollen and dark tongues. It was these symptoms that provided researchers with the insight into what might be causing the maniacal cannibalism.

According to AFP, Vitamin B3 deficiency has been historically linked to “black-tongue” syndrome in dogs. In humans, it can cause pellagra, which is also known as the “3-D” disease: diarrhea, dementia and dermatitis (like eczema).

“Improperly cooked maize-based diets have been associated with higher rates of homicide, suicide and cannibalism in humans,” researchers wrote.

Pellagra, according to Brittanica.com, is a 4-D disease, the last “D” being death, which results from the aforementioned symptoms and multiple organ failure. It is thought to have decimated some three million people in North America and Europe from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century, with the southern United States taking the brunt of the disease’s deaths.

To find out if their manic hamsters were victims of a similar condition, Tissier and her colleagues devised a simple set of experiments. Diets for the hamsters became only corn, but in two sets. One set of subjects had B3 added to their corn.

Hamster eating in a corn field
European hamsters in western Europe live in a controlled corn-dominated environment, now seen as a danger to the species. [Image by Jausa/Shutterstock]

The female hamsters that ate the B3-infused corn showed no propensity to eat their offspring. The conclusion: The cannibalism was found to not be caused by a reduction in maternal hormones but rather an alteration in the nervous system that induced the same dementia-like behavior diagnosed in humans.

[Featured Image by KOO/Shutterstock]

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