Pets Go Clean, Wild Animals Find Safety in Filth

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Domestic animals tend to develop an aversion to dirt, according to a new study that finds their more wild counterparts aren’t nearly as clean.

The study, published in the journal Animal Behavior, points out how tough- and gross- life can be outside of domesticated comfort.

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“Domesticated animals generally avoid feces to reduce the chance of parasitic infection, but this study shows that wild animals are more concerned with the risk of starvation than with table manners, taking any opportunity to feed,” co-author Patrick Walsh of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, was quoted as saying in a press release.

He added, “They may even associate feces with safety – a spot where a mouse has lived long enough to nest and poo is probably pretty safe – and that is worth the risk of disease.”

Walsh and his colleagues focused their study on two types of wild mice in Virginia. The scientists collected some of the scrappy rodents from a woodland area and placed them in a box for a few hours. They gave the mice the option of being close to mouse poo, or not. A similar experiment was conducted with new and soiled nesting material.

The researchers determined that the animals preferred being near droppings and second-hand nest material, regardless of whether there was an increased risk of contracting parasites in either case.

From the mouse’s perspective, I can only guess that the poo from other rodents informs them that the area is somewhat safe, because it was previously home to other mice.

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In contrast, the little cute mice that you can get at pet stores tend to be very fastidious. Like domestic cats, they spend much of their time washing and grooming themselves. So under more comfortable circumstances, where food, shelter and safety aren’t so questionable, most animals make some effort to be clean.

I wonder about our early human ancestors, which were preyed upon by other carnivores. (A recent study of 1.8-million-year-old human-like individuals in the Eurasian country Georgia suggests that large meat eaters frequently targeted them.) With no soap and showers around and concerns for safety being prevalent, the early humans were probably a pretty dirty bunch.

Walsh and his team are interested in why such filthiness persists among some wild animals since the research, he explained, “helps us learn more about how diseases spread in the natural world.”

(Image: Melia Shumaker, Flickr)