Studying The Life Of The Urban Rat
In the age of commercial space flight and artificial intelligence, you would think there are very few things that are beyond the reach of science. However, there are surprisingly few things we know about the urban rat, which is perhaps the most important wildlife present in the city in our world of giant metropolises.
Rats are small, paranoid creatures that live underground and in seclusion. This makes them hard to study in an ecosystem as complex as that of the city. Researchers however, emphasize the importance of controlling the rat issue, because they carry a huge number of dangerous diseases, which can lead to a lot of death and suffering in tightly packed urban areas.
As such it is important to understand how rats behave in urban areas in order to be able to control their population and mitigate the negative effects of their presence in our cities. In order to do this, one team of researchers decided to study how the rats use their sense of smell to find mates and resources.
It’s important to note that rats have been by our side, for better or worse, since humans started creating settlements. Rats have evolved to feed on human leftovers and garbage, and so, they followed us wherever we went across the globe. Consequently, you will now find rats on every continent.
Now adapted to large urban environments, city rats will find their way into a building using holes that are as small as a quarter and they are also excellent climbers. To make matters worse, they can even enter a building through the toilet, and since their journeys start in sewers, parks or subways, they will carry a lot of pathogens with them into the home.
Unlike humans, rats are an r-selected species, which means that they have a short gestation and maturation period, and they have numerous offspring each year (one female rat can give birth to up to 84 rats each year). However, they do have short lifespans, ranging from six months to two years.
Despite this and their huge numbers, city rats are notoriously hard to study. They are nocturnal creatures, and healthy individual rats are rarely spotted. In order to address this and many other issues, researchers have developed a technique that uses pheromones to lure rats and then implant them with an RFID chip. This is the same chip you see on products at the grocery store, and it contains information that can be changed remotely.
Researchers would then place lures in various locations and see how often chipped rats returned. They would also record changes in the size and appearance of the rat, and sometimes recapture the rat to perform various blood and DNA tests. These tests would allow researchers to figure out when and how certain pathogens entered the rat population, along with interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact that male rats would forage 24/7, while female rats would only forage in the late morning. Hopefully, this information and more can at least help researchers detect and prevent major disease outbreaks due to these rodents.