Schneeberger, K., Röder, G., Taborsky, M. 2020. The smell of hunger: Norway rats provision social partners based on odour cues of need. PLoS Biology 18(3), e3000628.
When individuals exchange helpful acts reciprocally, increasing the benefit of the receiver can enhance its propensity to return a favour, as pay-offs are typically correlated in iterated interactions. Therefore, reciprocally cooperating animals should consider the relative benefit for the receiver when deciding to help a conspecific. Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) exchange food reciprocally and thereby take into account both the cost of helping and the potential benefit to the receiver. By using a variant of the sequential iterated prisoner’s dilemma paradigm, we show that rats may determine the need of another individual by olfactory cues alone. In an experimental food-exchange task, test subjects were provided with odour cues from hungry or satiated conspecifics located in a different room. Our results show that wild-type Norway rats provide help to a stooge quicker when they receive odour cues from a hungry rather than from a satiated conspecific. Using chemical analysis by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), we identify seven volatile organic compounds that differ in their abundance between hungry and satiated rats. Combined, this “smell of hunger” can apparently serve as a reliable cue of need in reciprocal cooperation, which supports the hypothesis of honest signalling.