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Rats give more generously in response to the smell of hunger



IMAGE: One rat (right) pulls a tray toward the cage, thereby providing access to food (an oat flake) to the social partner (left) in the other cage compartment view more 

Credit: Res Schmid

How do animals that help their brethren manage to prioritize those most in need? A study publishing March 24 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Karin Schneeberger and colleagues of the Universities of Bern in Switzerland and Potsdam in Germany, shows that rats can use odor cues alone to determine how urgently to provide food assistance to other rats in need.

Reciprocal cooperation among unrelated individuals is widespread in the animal kingdom. For example, Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) exchange food reciprocally and take into account both the cost of helping and the potential benefit to the receiver. Rats show their need for food through solicitation, which increases the chances they will receive help. But communication through calls and gestures may not honestly reflect the actual need of the recipient, and might instead be used to trick a potential donor into helping. In the new study, Schneeberger and colleagues used Norway rats to investigate odor as a potentially "honest cue" by which prospective donors can assess others' need for food.

The researchers provided rats with odor cues from hungry or well-fed rats located in a different room. They found that the rats were quicker to provide help (by pulling a food tray within reaching distance of another rat) when they received odor cues from a hungry rat than from a well-fed one.

The authors then analyzed the air from around the rats, revealing seven different volatile organic chemicals that differed significantly in their abundance between hungry and satiated rats. According to the authors, the olfactory cues may result directly from recently ingested food sources, from metabolic processes involved in digestion, or from a putative pheromone that indicates hunger. This "smell of hunger" can serve as a reliable cue of need in reciprocal cooperation, supporting the hypothesis of honest signaling.

The authors add: "Rats donate food preferably to social partners in urgent need."


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Citation: Schneeberger K, Röder G, Taborsky M (2020) The smell of hunger: Norway rats provision social partners based on odour cues of need. PLoS Biol 18(3): e3000628.

Funding: This project was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF), grant numbers 31003A_156152 and 31003A_176174 to M.T. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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