Farmers Growing Corn Are Making Hamsters Eat Their Own Babies

European Hamster

Hamsters are omnivores and will eat just about anything. Corn, worms, wheat, and clover are all parts of their diet. Sometimes they even eat their own young.

Research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B documents a strange case of hamsters who had been fed lots of corn. Compared to other wild hamsters who were fed wheat, corn-fed hamsters were much more likely to cannibalize their babies.

European hamsters are wild, field-dwelling animals that live among farmers. Despite their propensity to breed quickly and birth entire litters of babies at a time, their population has been declining for years.

When a population declines, it could be because the animals are dying too quickly, not breeding enough, or their babies aren't making it to adulthood. Scientists at Université de Strasbourg in France wanted to find out why these wild hamsters were having a hard time. They wondered if their diet could affect their viability, so they captured and reared a group, while controlling what they ate.

The scientists fed one group of hamsters a wheat-based diet, and another a corn-based diet. While neither diet killed the hamsters, they noticed the corn-based hamsters acted strangely during and after pregnancy. They were failing to act maternally and did not nestle their offspring in warm nests. Instead, they abandoned them to random spots in their cages. Then they would eat the babies alive.

Of all the hamsters who gave birth, only one corn-fed hamster let her litter live long enough to be weaned. In that case, two male siblings ate their sisters.

Eating your own young is not sustainable for animals who need to grow their populations. It takes a lot of energy to gestate and birth babies, but sometimes animals need to eat whatever nutrition they can in order to survive, and hopefully, live long enough to raise another set of offspring.

The study suggests that a deficiency of the vitamin B3, or niacin, led to this behavior. B3 is found in bread and wheat products, and the hamsters fed the wheat-based diet did not exhibit cannibalism.

This could explain why European hamsters are disappearing from their range. As more farmers grow corn, corn becomes a staple of their diet, as opposed to wheat. When the mother hamsters eat their own young, there are fewer hamsters to carry on with the next generation.