In eastern Africa, a strange rodent the size of a rabbit lives and is a bit like a skunk in color: white and black stripes run along the fur along the body, becoming especially noticeable when the shaggy hamster threatens someone and understands the coat on end. He can afford to threaten, as the predator will be seriously hurt if he grabs the hamster. Its fur is smeared with ouabain poison from the wood of the Abyssinian acokantera – a small tree or shrub growing in the same place where the hamster lives.
Ouabain resembles the South American curare in action. Hunters from East African tribes boil the bark of acokantera and grease their arrows with the resulting broth: with the help of a poison that causes a heart spasm, they even cope with elephants. It is not known whether a shaggy hamster walks on an elephant, but, say, for an inexperienced dog, an attack on a hamster does not bode well: if it grabs a rodent, it will very soon become very bad, even death. The hamster’s undercoat hair is porous and absorbs poison through the pores directly into the inner shaft, like a tampon. The rodent cannot boil the bark to obtain a poisonous solution, but it can gnaw it and lick itself with a mixture of saliva and poison.
The local Africans have known for a long time that the shaggy hamster is poisonous. But zoologists for a long time were satisfied with only one scientific work, which described the behavior of a single hamster. More animals needed to be confirmed that shaggy hamsters did indeed use poison and that it did not harm them.
The employees did it University of Utah together with colleagues from Kenya. Studying shaggy hamsters is not easy, since they are quite secretive, but nevertheless, the researchers managed to catch 25 hamsters and use video cameras to observe them in a special area, where they could behave in the same way as in the wild. It immediately turned out that shaggy hamsters are completely social animals: the researchers got married couples of hamsters who spent most of their time with each other – sniffing, licking each other and actively communicating with different sounds, from squeaks to purring. Moreover, in such families there are often quite old children who, apparently, leave the parental hearth late. The fact that hamsters form monogamous pairs was suspected earlier – in favor of this was their large size, relatively long life span and slow reproduction. However, the sociality of shaggy hamsters came as a surprise to researchers, because until now it was believed that they lead a predominantly solitary lifestyle, despite being monogamous.
But most of all zoologists were interested in what the hamsters would do with the branches of the poisonous acokantera. In an article in Journal of Mammalogy it is said that ten out of twenty-five hamsters caught chewed tree bark at least once and, licking, applied its juice to the coat. At the same time, it was impossible to say by the hamsters themselves that the poison was acting on them. So now there is no doubt that shaggy hamsters do use wood poison, which can protect them from increased attention from predators.
The shaggy hamster chews the acokantera and inflicts poison on its fur.
It took the researchers a long time to collect enough hamsters for observation. Shaggy hamsters are quite rare and their population is very sparse. It might be worth taking some kind of environmental protection measures to prevent the extinction of these outlandish rodents.
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