The Chemistry of Instinct

A mouse doesn't have to have experience with a cat to be afraid, be very afraid. But they must have the nose to pick up the chemical signals of danger.
Mice have a specialized organ in their noses that picks up chemical signals, called the vomeronasal organ, which helps them detect pheromones emitted by other mice. These mice pheromones have a direct effect on behavior–most obviously in the realms of mating and fighting. In this new study, published in the journal Cell, neurobiologist Lisa Stowers decided to investigate whether the vomeronasal organ was capable of picking up signals from other species as well.

The reseachers took normal lab mice and mutant mice with inactive vomeronasal organs and presented them with cotton balls laced with predator smells, including cat saliva and rat urine. The normal mice backed into the corners of their cages as if trying to escape a predator’s attention, but the mutant mice showed no signs of concern. The mutants were so relaxed that they didn’t even react when a live but anesthetized rat was placed in their cages.

By process of elimination, the scientists were able to isolate some proteins that spelled "cat" to the mice's vomeronasal organs. Link

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Yeah, and it's quite effective. Problem is when it gets in other creatures...proven to cause fish to swim slowly close to the surface of the water (I think that's the only non-mammal to be affected) and seriously messes up a lot of other mammals.

I wouldn't pass it along as gospel until quite a few more studies are done, but the supposed effects on humans do make a lot of sense given what it does to others. Kind of creepy that a parasite can do so much.
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Interesting! Mice who are infected with Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite that is why pregnant women are advised not to change litterboxes) show no fear of cats, and are actually drawn to their scent. It's not the same as this- the sex centers in the mouse's mind are mildly stimulated by cat scent when it's infected instead of just indifferent to danger, but I wonder if that organ has anything to do with how/why T. gondii is able to rewire the mouse brain.
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