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Hamsters Use Predator Odors as Indirect Cues of Predation Risk


M. Elsbeth McPhee, Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca 14853, NY, USA.


Golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) use olfactory cues to assess traits of conspecifics such as kinship, individual identity, and reproductive status. The environment, however, is full of a wide variety of other olfactory information such as signals emitted by some of the hamster’s primary predators. Given this, we hypothesized that hamsters use odors from predators as an indirect sign of increased predation risk in the environment. In addition, based on data that show that wild hamsters are diurnal while laboratory hamsters are nocturnal, we hypothesized that if golden hamsters did respond to the predator odors, perceived predator risk might influence daily activity patterns in hamsters. We tested male and female hamsters over 5 d with scent gland secretion from domestic ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) and compared their behavior to that observed when they were exposed to a clean arena. In response to the predator odor, subjects significantly decreased the amount of time active outside of their burrow, returned to their burrow more quickly, and spent less time near the predator odor than the clean control stimulus. These results strongly support our hypothesis that hamsters, like other species of small mammals, avoid predator odors. The results did not, however, support our second hypothesis that exposure to predator odors during the dark phase of the light cycle would elicit a switch to a more diurnal pattern of activity. More work is needed to understand how environmental cues and internal mechanisms interact to shape activity patterns.

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