Gerbils replace rats as prime plague suspects

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Feb 28, 2015 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

(CNN)For a long time, rats have taken the heat for the waves of plague that killed millions of people across Europe starting in the 14th century.

But now suspicion is falling on another rodent with a much cuddlier reputation: the gerbil.

The rats that save livesTanzania-based NGO Apopo trains giant African pouched rats to sniff out land mines and detect tuberculosis -- two scourges that have had a tremendously negative impact on the African landscape.In 2006, Apopo started testing rats on the mine fields in Mozambique, a country that at that time was one of the worst affected by landmines, thanks mainly to a civil war that ended in 1992. Since then, Apopo has cleared the country of 6,693 landmines, 29,934 small arms and ammunition, and 1,087 bombs. It is on track to clear Mozambique of landmines by the years end. Mine detection rats take nine months to a year to train. The rats are socialized when they are four-weeks-old so that they are comfortable working with humans.The rats are then conditioned with clicker training, so that they associate the sound of a click with a reward (usually peanuts or bananas). They are then introduced to a target scent (TNT or positive TB samples). The rats are then conditioned with clicker training, so that they associate the sound of a click with a reward (usually peanuts or bananas). They are then introduced to a target scent (TNT or positive TB samples). Mine-detection rats are then trained in a sandbox, where they are charged with sniffing out TNT-stuffed tea balls.In the final stage of training, mine-detection rats demonstrate their abilities at a training field at Morgoro, Tanzania -- the second largest in the world. It has over 1,500 mines, over 14 types are used during different training stages.After a rat detects a mine, a manual deminer extracts the device. A single rat can clear 200 square feet in under an hour. It will take a manual deminer working alone about 50 hours to clear the same space. Because rats are small, they are also cheaper to transport and store than dogs -- who are traditionally employed to sniff out mines. In Africa, they are a cheaper option, because they are plentiful and easy to train. Each Apopo rat costs about $7,600 to train (a third the price it costs to train a dog). Apopo also trains rats to sniff out TB. Currently, the NGOs rodents are screening TB samples in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Maputo, Mozambique.In addition to its work in Mozambique, Apopo has participated in mine-clearing projects in a number of countries, including Angola, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Lao. Here, one of Apopos training supervisors works with a Cambodian trainer.In order to raise funds, Apopo has launched an adopt-a-rat program, which allows participants to sponsor a hero rat.Apopo mine detection rat mozambiqueApopo land mine ratApopo landmine mozambiqueApopo land mine rat Mozambique fieldApopo rat test mine field bananaApopo mine detection rats sand pitApopo land mine ratapopo mozambique mine detectionApopo trainer mine detection ratApopo African giant pouched rats in labApopo mine detection rats training fieldApopo rat

A team of scientists from Norway and Switzerland are challenging the widely held view that communities of rats in Europe played host to the fleas carrying the disease for hundreds of years.

In an article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say they think the plague bacteria could have sprung from populations of the great gerbil and other rodent species in Central Asia.

“If we’re right, we’ll have to rewrite that part of history,” Professor Nils Christian Stenseth of the University of Oslo, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC.

The scientists investigated Europe’s second plague pandemic, which began with the infamous Black Death from 1347 to 1353 and continued on and off for four centuries.

    Carried along trade routes?

    They say pinning the blame solely on rats doesn’t make sense.

    Rats weren’t found in large areas of northern Europe during the period, and the peaks of the plague outbreaks don’t correspond well with the climate conditions that suit rapid spreading of the disease by rat fleas.

    Instead, by analyzing climate data gleaned from tree rings, they found clues that suggest the plague might have repeatedly been carried back into Europe from outbreaks among rodents in Central Asia.

    “We show that wherever there were good conditions for gerbils and fleas in Central Asia, some years later the bacteria shows up in harbor cities in Europe and then spreads across the continent,” Stenseth told the BBC.

    The scientists say they think it’s possible the plague was reintroduced each time by the trading networks of the era.

    Caravans of traders and their camels that traveled through infested areas in Central Asia could have picked up the disease and sent it along trade routes reaching into Europe.

    Pet gerbils not a risk

    To determine whether they’re right, the researchers plan to analyze ancient plague DNA taken from victims of the pandemic.

    But if rats are hoping the scientists’ theory will get them off the hook entirely, they should think again. The study says they could still have played a part in the spread of plague by ships.

    And for people suddenly worried about their pet gerbil, there’s no cause for alarm.

    “If you get your gerbil at a pet store … you have nothing to worry about,” Ken Gage, a plague expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NPR.

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