Black Rats, Brown Rats, and the Plague

May 31, 2012

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about rats. Thankfully, it is not because I have a problem in my apartment! Unfortunately, for many people in L.A., rats are a serious pest, and it's not just one type of rat. The most serious rodent offenders in our cities are the brown (aka Norway) rat, Rattus norvegicus, and the black rat, Rattus rattus.  

What species of rat is this? Here on the North Campus we have camera trap images and footage of rats hanging out underneath the bridge. But what type of rat is this? Since Jim Dines, our Mammalogy Collections Manager, wasn't available, I decided to try and figure it out myself. Doing a Wikipedia search for brown rats, I came across a nice diagram that helped me to make an identification. What species do you think it is?    

    Comparison of the physique of a black rat, Rattus rattus,  with a brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, from wikipedia   Using this diagram I looked closely at the ears and the eyes of the rat. Based on the relatively large size of the ears and the eyes, I determined the above image was of a black rat rather than a brown rat. I showed the image to Jim and he confirmed that it was indeed a black rat!        

      Black rat (top) and brown rat (bottom) from the Museum collection. Note the tail to body length ratio.   Regardless of the species, why do people hate rats? As I referenced in the introductory paragraph, rats are sometimes pests in our homes, but what exactly do people think about rats? I did a Google search for, "why do people hate rats," and this is what I found. "Cute or not they're germ-ridden disease carrying vermin who in addition, can cause untold damage. THAT'S WHY." I also found this: "Rats are pests to humanity, but I personally believe that people especially hate rats because they subconsciously identify with them and see them as a reminder of themselves." Finally, someone else wrote: "A lot of rat-hatred goes back as far as plague. Rats were responsible for the disease that killed thousands of people." But, is plague a worry for us today in L.A.? Not really here in the city (I hear a collective YAY)! Firstly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the last cases of urban, rat-associated plague occurred in L.A. in the 1920s. However, plague is present in L.A. County, and the principal mode of infection is from infected fleas living on wild rodents in rural areas. These rodents include California ground squirrels (remember the recent blog post?) and chipmunks! According to L.A. public health officials, "the major threat of plague to humans is in the rural, recreational and, wilderness areas of the Angeles National Forest, as well as the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains." But, before you swear off recreating in our lovely parks forever, know that there have only been four cases of the plague in L.A. since 1979, none of which were fatal (another YAY for antibiotics and modern medicine). P.S., Plague is actually caused by a bacteria, Yersinia pestis, that lives in the blood and other bodily fluids of fleas, rodents, and other mammals.  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Breaking and Entering: Squirrel Moves into Opossum Den

March 16, 2012

We have another new sighting for the North Campus. A California ground squirrel has been spotted using the opossum den located underneath one of our Museum sheds. So far it seems that both the opossums and the squirrels are sharing the space!    

    Sam Easterson's camera trap captures the first image!   This is what Jim Dines, our Mammalogy Collections Manager, has to say about them: The California ground squirrel, as its name suggests, is common throughout California as well as the rest of the western U.S. Scientists know this rodent as Otospermophilus beecheyi (formerly known as Spermophilus beecheyi). They are diurnal (active during the daylight) and, like other ground squirrels, live in burrows that they excavate or take over from other animals. Our ground squirrel has apparently moved into a den built by an opossum.     Ground squirrels eat seeds, nuts, and a variety of other plant material, as well as insects and handouts left by humans. Since they also invade gardens and cultivated areas, California ground squirrels are commonly regarded as pests. Their extensive burrow systems can be very destructive. They are also a host to fleas that can carry plague, so pose a health risk to humans and their pets. Rattlesnakes are one of the main natural predators of California ground squirrels and the squirrels have developed an interesting defense mechanism: the ground squirrels will eat the shed skins of rattlesnakes and then lick themselves and their young, thus covering themselves with rattlesnake scent and confusing a potential rattlesnake predator into thinking it is merely smelling another rattlesnake. Pretty sneaky, eh?     The California ground squirrel has a fairly bushy tail so is sometimes mistaken for the Eastern fox squirrel (a tree squirrel), but has different colored fur and retreats underground instead of up into a tree.     Watch Sam accidentally startle the squirrel into the den!  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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