By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 24 September 2012
My absence last week was due to a critically important Disneyland-fueled birthday bonanza, thanks Naomi for your super duper blog. The actual day of my birthday I was back in London, and so I spent it literally scaring myself silly at the London Dungeon. It may have been the clash of my Disney Princess birthday badge (displaying a ‘3’ followed by a suspiciously biro coloured ‘1’) with the general ambiance of the Dungeon but for some reason the staff decided I was in no uncertain terms a heinous witch and must therefore clearly be punished. Logically, I was subsequently tied to a pole and burned at the stake. As the flames leaped higher and the shouts of “Burn witch burn” got louder (pretty sure I heard my partner’s voice in the crowd), I started to think I should leave my lightly barbequed corpse to the Museum. I could hang next to the gorilla skeleton so students could compare the anatomy of gorillas and… witches. As I looked at the gorilla skeleton this morning, having miraculously survived my hocus pocus ordeal, I realised the specimen the gorilla is staring at also featured at the Dungeon. The oh so hilarious and not so secretly potentially slightly sadistic staff members aside, there are a number of residents of the London Dungeon that are far less scary and way more cute than the bloodied corpses that litter room after room. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
**!!The Black Rat!!**
1) The black rat is widely thought to be the carrier andsubsequent spread-erer of the plague that caused the infamous black death in England in 1348. However I chose to argue that this is not in fact the case. Yes, the black rat may have been harbouring the fleas that carried the plague that subsequently killed 1.5 million people across England, but really it was the flea that had the plague and the flea that bit the people and injected the virus. Do you think the rats wanted to have fleas. Nooooo, of course they didn’t, they were just poor victims of the real culprits, the nasty bitey itch-inducing black-death-carrying ectoparasitic invertebrates. Poor black rat. Its association with these meany fleas is however the reason behind their occupancy of the London Dungeon.
2) The black rat was originally from Asia. It arrived in Britain with the Romans as they set off about the world, conquering each place they fancied and delivering rats like Santa and his toys as they went. Also known as the ship rat, the black rat spread far across the world thanks to its ability to more or less live anywhere and eat anything. A third common name for this species is the roof rat, as they have developed a liking for, well, living in roofs. And why not, who doesn’t want to live under a nice roof?
3) ‘Black rat’ is an odd name for the species given that they are all in fact black, and rats. Wait, errr… Hmmm. Their tail is longer than their body and like a cat, is used for balance, especially when climbing which they are most skilled at. The black rat also has mean skills in other sports such as swimming and well, breeding. Having (mostly) rid itself of the plague by the 1700s(a few times over by this point), the black rat then had to contend with a bigger problem. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family and the black rat’s bigger cousin, the brown rat, arrived in Britain sometime in the 18th Century. The brown rat has subsequently spelled disaster for the black rat, out-competing it for food and real estate.
4) The black rat is nocturnal by nature (presumably hence its colour), though as with some other urban species, can often be seen during the daytime due to disturbance from humans. Rat packs (yes that’s what are they are officially called) consisting of a few males and a couple of dominant females, construct nests of grass and twigs. A female black rat can have a phenomenal though not particularly enviable 16 young in one go. A fine effort worth a round of applause I’d say. Pause for applause. Breeding only occurs between March and November, though they have between three and five goes at it in the average each year. A female is able to breed once she reaches 12 weeks old. Pffff.
5) The prolific efforts at breeding are to counter a couple of problems that the black rat faces. Not including the black death and bullies for cousins. The maximum lifespan of a wild black rat is less than 18 months. Can I have an ‘Awwwww’? Pause for Aw. The black rat also has a high mortality rate, though this is primarily due to humans taking a major dislike to holes in their property, diminishing levels of stored food supplies, particularly in farm buildings, and of course, to the fact that, they may, on occasion, potentially ‘carry’ a little disease or two. Poor little guys, they just can’t catch a break.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology