George Stimpson

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Are rats native to America?

Several species of rats are native to America, such as the cotton, the Florida and the Rocky Mountain rat, but the common black, brown and gray house rats are of Old World origin. Both the black and the brown rat are believed to be natives of China. Westerners generally are horrified by the thought of eating rats because of their uncleanness and repulsive appearance. But these animals are a regular article of food in many parts of the Orient. They may be bought any time in the markets of some Chinese cities—either dried like herrings Or alive in cages. Native American rats differ considerably from house rats. The wood rat, for instance, is cleanly in habits, eats food of an unbjectionable nature and has flesh that is said to be palatable and wholesome. Rats are not mentioned in the Bible and they are not referred to in Greek and Roman literature, although a medieval legend says that Abdera, an ancient maritime town in Thrace, became so overrun with rats that all the inhabitants abandoned the place and removed to Macedonia. The world-wide distribution of house rats resulted from world-wide commerce. They probably were not introduced intentionally anywhere, but they have found their way by means of ships and vehicles to all parts of the world. Just when the black (Indian) rat was introduced into Europe is not known. Late Latin ratus and its cognates in other European languages may have originally been applied to another rodent. Some authorities suppose the Crusaders brought the black rat from the Near East. During the latter part of the Middle Ages this species was the common house rat on the continent. The brown (Norway) rat did not appear in Europe until about 1727 when great numbers of them swam across tile alga and established themselves in Astrakhan, whence they spread westward to Europe and finally to America. William T. Blanford (1832-1905), English scientist, wrote in Mammals of India that Chinese Mongolia was probably the original habitat of this species. It was not native to India, and in Blanford's day it was unknown in Persia and [page 62] Afghanistan, although he predicted that the brown rat would be intro­duced into the two latter countries as soon as wheeled vehicles sup­planted pack animals. The black rat was introduced into the New World from Europe as early as 1554. There may have been members of this species on the Mayflower. The black rat is less hardy and general it has become comparatively rare where the brown rat has become abundant. The gray, Alexandrine, roof or white-bellied rat is a native of Egypt and North Africa and apparently found its way to America at an early date by way of Italy and Spain. Aldabra Island, 200 miles northwest of Madagascar, swarms with black rats that feed on the young of the gigantic land tortoises as soon as they are hatched. In the Laccadive Islands in the Indian Ocean black rats modified their habits and became arboreal, living in coconut trees without ever descending to the ground, and feeding on the unripe nuts. A species of rat in New Guinea measures three feet from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. House rats are among the most destructive pests in the world. They are hard to exterminate because they are prolific, omnivorous, agile and resourceful. A rat can jump vertically to a height of two feet or more. It can drag objects from place to place by means of its tail. Rats are common disease-carriers and probably have been responsible for more human deaths than all the wars of history. Under favorable conditions the progeny of a pair of rats could number 350 million in three years. Rats, like guinea pigs, are often used in scientific experiments because they multiply rapidly and eat about the same foods as human beings.