Mathilde TissierMathilde Tissier – CNRS PhD student – LIFE ALISTER

Thesis subject: Evaluating the nutritional quality of different crops and introducing anti-predation mechanisms to restore the habitat of the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) and reconnect populations.

Following a scientific baccalaureate at the Lycée Agricole Olivier de Serres in Ardèche (2008), I took a degree in animal and plant biology at Montpellier. In the last year of my degree, I went to Quebec and became fascinated by animal ecology and conservation biology. I was then accepted on a master’s course in « eco-physiology and ethology » at the University of Strasbourg. After getting my qualifications (2013), I applied to do this thesis on the European hamster in Alsace.

What is your role in the LIFE ALISTER project?

As a partner of the project, the CNRS is interested in two issues: firstly, evaluating the relationship between the success of hamster reproduction in the wild (number of litters and number of young per litter) and its food sources; and secondly, improving survival rates when hamsters use wildlife crossings.

As part of my thesis, I test the impact of different foods (wheat, corn, clover, earthworms, etc.) on hamster reproduction. The first part of the study was conducted in the laboratory and we’re now moving into the second phase and doing the same study in outside runs. The hamsters will be released into pre-dug burrows, allowing us to measure the impact of food on their hibernation and reproduction in semi-natural conditions which are more representative of what happens in the wild.

Can you already tell us what its favourite meal is?

The hamster eats a wide range of foods when it has the opportunity to do so – grains (wheat, corn), leaves (alfalfa, clover) and even insects. We observed that it’s particularly fond of potatoes, clover and earthworms in the study we conducted.

And what about « hamster crossings »? Can you tell us what they are?

They’re small tunnels allowing hamsters to cross obstacles, mainly roads. The problem is that predators like foxes and cats have learnt that they can find easy prey there. We’re working to devise solutions so that hamsters can escape when they meet a predator in the tunnel. I’m currently testing different systems in the lab. We have to check whether they work, that the hamster uses them and so on. As with food, the next step will be to test them in semi-natural environments before installing them in the areas where the hamsters live, our final goal.

How did you end up studying hamsters?

During my degree, I became fascinated with studying mammals in their natural environment. I developed a particular interest in hibernating, solitary and omnivorous animals that don’t always find it easy to live alongside humans. They’re often highly adaptable animals despite all the pressures on them. I firstly got interested in the food and behavioural strategies of the brown bear, an animal that both fascinates and frightens us. And when I heard about the European hamster and the issues related to its decline in numbers, I got really interested in it. Doing this thesis allows me to combine everything that fascinated me in my studies: food strategies, behaviour, conservation of a species on the brink of extinction, people-wildlife conflicts, etc.

What can you tell us about this animal?

It’s an animal that’s well known and yet we know very little about it. As it lives underground and emerges at dusk, I think many people are unaware of its behaviour. The young for example, are very playful and spend lots of time squabbling (just like lion and bear cubs).

As for the adults, they’re highly organised. The hamster burrow contains numerous galleries, with areas for storing food, latrine areas, an area for sleeping and raising the young, and different exits in case the burrow is attacked. The mother has a highly developed maternal and protective instinct, and once she’s raised her young, she leaves them alone in the burrow she constructed so they stay protected for a bit longer.

Last but not least, the hamster is what’s known as an « umbrella species »: studying and protecting it will allow us to protect many other species that depend on the same habitat: insects, micromammals, numerous birds, etc.