An all-corn diet can quite literally turn a female hamster into a cannibal. A new study found that the European hamster, which once used to feast on a varied diet of grains, roots, and insects, is not doing so well on a diet limited to industrially grown corn. Indeed, the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, notes that the hamster species is "on the verge of extinction in Western Europe." The all-maize regimen has turned the burrowing critters into "deranged cannibals" that eat their own offspring, the AFP reports. Scientists in northeastern France stumbled on the discovery while studying whether diet affects hamsters' ability to reproduce in the wild. They fed a set of hamsters wheat or corn-based diets, each mixed with worms and clover.
Roughly equal numbers of pups were born to mothers fed either diet. But while 80% of pups whose moms ate a wheat-based diet lived to be weaned, only 5% of those fed a corn-based diet made it that far. "Females stored their pups with their hoards of maize before eating them," say the scientists, who noted other unusual behaviors, like the mothers running in circles. The researchers suspected a lack of vitamin B3 (niacin) was to blame, and confirmed it by again feeding the hamsters corn-based diets, but adding B3 for one group; these mothers didn't consume their young. Vitamin B3 deficiency has been linked to unpleasant conditions in dogs (black-tongue syndrome) and humans ("from 1735 to 1940, maize-based diets led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people from pellagra," per the researchers). Read about another food you shouldn't feed hamsters. (Read more hamster stories.)