Visual snake aversion in Octodon degus and C57BL/6 mice

Abstract

Phobia against spiders or snakes is common in humans, and similar phobia-like behaviors have been observed in non-human animals. Visual images of snakes elicit phobia in humans, but sensory modalities that cause snake aversion in non-human animals are not well examined. In this study, we examined visually induced snake aversion in two rodent species. Using a three-compartment experimental chamber, reactions to images of snakes were compared between the diurnal precocious rodent Octodon degus and nocturnal laboratory mice. The snakes whose images were presented do not live in the original habitats of degus or mice. Snake aversion was assessed by presenting snake vs. no-image, snake vs. flower, snake vs. degu, and snake vs. mouse images. The time spent in a compartment with the snake image and with the non-snake images were measured. Degus avoided images of snakes in every tests. In contrast, mice did not display snake aversion. Degus are diurnal animals, i.e., visual information is important for their survival. Since mice are nocturnal, visual information is less important for survival. Such behavioral differences in the two species may explain the difference in visually induced aversion to snakes. A principal component analysis of the stimulus images suggests that elementary cues, such as color, do not explain the differences in the species’ aversion to snakes. Finally, snake aversion in degus suggests that aversion is innate, since the animals were born and raised in a laboratory.