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Scientists throw predators off the scent with clever trick

October 15, 2012|By Jon Bardin
  • In a new study, scientists tricked rats into ignoring their prey by pre-exposing them to the prey's scent but in faked setups that led to no actual prey. The technique could be useful for protecting endangered species.
In a new study, scientists tricked rats into ignoring their prey by pre-exposing… (Pontus Lundahl / AFP/Getty…)

Imagine if every time you were attracted to that delicious smell wafting from your neighborhood Cinnabon's open door, you found upon entering that it was actually a hardware store with no food in sight. It wouldn't be long before that smell no longer sucked you in.

That’s essentially what scientists tried in an attempt to solve an age-old problem in species conservation: How do you stop predators from attacking their prey?

In the new study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Australia exposed black rats to the smells of a bird’s nest — avian feces, feathers and the like — by placing scent-spiked fake nests throughout a field.

Normally, the smells would signal to the rats that food was at hand. But because there were no bird eggs in the nests, the rats soon learned to ignore the smell, treating it as just another bit of noise in their chaotic natural environment.

When the researchers added the actual prey back in, the behavior stuck: Seven days after re-introduction, prey whose scent had been pre-exposed had a 62% higher likelihood of survival, mainly because the rats attacked fewer nests.

The researchers believe the technique will apply to more than just rats and may be generally useful as a technique to protect species that are endangered or are going through a period of vulnerability, or when re-introducing species to the wild.

You can read a summary of the study here.

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