Researchers Accidentally Turned A Crop Of Hamsters Into Cannibals

A dietary deficiency caused some grisly results

You’re probably not going to get the telltale skin lesions and dementia of pellagra, the illness linked to corn-heavy diets in poor Southern towns because that disease was all but eradicated in the 1940s with vitamin-fortified diets. Processing corn so that the niacin present in it would be unbound was found to be effective in beating pellagra. And you’re probably not going to cannibalize your young either.

But that’s what happened with wild hamsters in a recent study at the University of Strasbourg in eastern France. Biology researcher Mathilde Tissier witnessed the terrifying scene worthy of a horror movie while researching the decline of the hamsters’ Eurasian range. Something was amiss. Tissier recounted watching mother hamsters pile their young into piles of corn that were stored for later consumption in their cages before eating the babies alive.

“I thought I had done something wrong,” she told Science News.

Leonhard Kern, "Menschenfresserin (A Human Animal)," ivory sculpture, c. 1650

It’s not exactly the same thing, but the hamsters may have developed a pellagra-like dementia that caused them to eat their babies. And it may be happening in the wild, too, where cornfields are increasingly common in France. In Europe, France is second in corn production only to the Ukraine.

Corn is more than a staple in the United States. America is first in the world in corn production, growing nearly a third of the entire world’s yield. It is the most subsidized crop. Diets heavy in high fructose corn syrup have been linked to obesity and diabetes, which costs the United States $245 billion a year.

Corn is in everything from yogurt and bread (corn syrup) to toothpaste (sorbitol is regularly derived from corn) to makeup products (zea mays) to milk (fortified with vitamin D from corn) to shampoo to the ethanol in alterative fuel cars.

Much has been written about America’s addiction to subsidy-fueled corn, and award-winning documentaries have been made on the topic. Hopefully, horror movies inspired by real life corn-mad cannibals aren’t on the horizon.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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