Chemical in Predator Pee Scares the Pee Out of Rodents

By Joseph Castro | June 23, 2011 10:54 pm

What’s the News: In the animal kingdom, prey species must follow one rule above all others: keep away from predators. To do this, some animals take chemical cues from the urine they stumble upon. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has identified a single molecule in the urine of many mammalian carnivores that causes rodents to scurry in fear. This chemical could eventually help scientists understand instinctual behavior in animals.

How the Heck:

  • A research team at the Harvard Medical School analyzed a group of olfactory receptors called trace amine-associated receptors (TAARs). They concentrated on one in particular, TAAR4, which is strongly activated by bobcat urine (sometimes used by gardeners to repel small pests). They found that one specific molecule, called 2-phenylethylamine, is responsible for the TAAR4 reaction.
  • To see if 2-phenylethylamine is bobcat specific, the team tested urine samples from 38 mammalian species, including servals, snow leopards, giraffes, zebras, and rodents. They found that the carnivores had the highest concentrations of the molecule, with some species, like lions and tigers, producing up to 3,000 times more 2-phenylethylamine than the herbivores.
  • As a way of checking the role of the molecule, the researchers placed a few drops of lion urine loaded with 2-phenylethylamine in a cage with mice and rats. The rodents avoided that area of the cage. The team then used urine free of the chemical, and found that the rodents had no aversion to it.

What’s the Context:

  • Scientists have long known that chemical cues can mediate predator-prey interactions, and not just in mammalian species. For example, some salamanders and tree frogs use these cues to detect predatory fish.
  • Sometimes these the cues aren’t enough. The parasitic disease taxoplasmosis can overcome rodents’ instinctual aversion to predatory urine. In some cases, the disease causes mice to actually seek out areas marked by cat urine. The mechanism is still a bit unclear, but scientists believe that taxoplasma does this by affecting dopamine levels in the amygdala.
  • The exact role of TAARs, first discovered 2001, is also unclear. But, “here we have the first convincing evidence that they might control instinctive behaviour,” Anna Menini, president-elect of the European Chemoreception Research Organization in Paris, told Nature.

The Future Holds:

  • The researchers are working to experimentally show that TAAR4 controls the rodents’ instinctive behavior. They are also trying to pinpoint brain circuits that TAAR4 activates as it responds to 2-phenylethylamine.
  • Future research needs to explain why carnivores have a higher concentration of the 2-phenylethylamine in their urine. The team suspects that it’s a by-product of meat digestion.

(via Nature)

Image: Flickr / goingslo

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: animals, mice, rats, rodents, senses
  • Carey

    No shit, Ever talk to a gardener or EH major??? This news is generations upon generations old.

  • IW

    I find it strange that you didn’t mention an immediate use in your “Future Holds” segment although you touched on it briefly earlier: would this not make a great rodent repellant for use in your yard?

  • Gil

    @2 I think you can already get predator urine to keep deer out of your flower beds and so forth. You’re probably already doing this if you have a pet: I know since we’ve got a dog that squirrels avoid the yard and stay on the periphery even when she isn’t out there.

  • John Lerch

    1 thing I would have liked to have known is: Is 2-PEA different from the PEA found in chocolate which is thought to be the feel good substance which causes over-indulgence in chocolate?

  • Jeremy Michael

    IW, it says in the How the Heck that it’s already used for rodents. “TAAR4, which is strongly activated by bobcat urine (sometimes used by gardeners to repel small pests).”

  • Chris the Canadian

    Gil very true, but I would suspect that they could isolate the molecule and produce a vermin deterent that doesn’t make your backyard or home smell like a zoo lol. That would be my hope anyhow

  • acuvue oasys rebate

    This specific web site is a good read through, thanks.

  • Tree Frog Man

    @Gil, you definitley can. My broteh rin law lives upstate NY and was telling me thats what he uses, but I had thought he was joking. lol. I guess not. :)


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar