Rats take care of each other

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 21, 2013 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

When we anthropomorphize rats, they are almost always portrayed as being greedy and selfish. Recently, there has been data that points to the contrary.

Research published in the journal Science shows that they respond to the emotions of their fellow rats, to the point that they will go out of their way to free ones that are trapped.

Scientists at the University of Chicago experimented with pairs of rats. One was allowed to roam free within a larger cage while its fellow subject was placed within a smaller cage inside the larger one. Within a few days, the free roaming rat wound up freeing the trapped rat.

Interestingly, all of the female rats tested released the trapped rats while among the males, 30 percent never became door openers. When chocolate was introduced to the experiment, there was no difference in the time it took to free the trapped rats. In most cases, the aiding rat didn’t eat all of the chocolate. Instead, they often allowed the trapped rats to share in the chocolate treats.

Rats can be a real problem both in the home and in the garden, and finding out that they help each other just makes the problem worse for us. Next to cockroaches, rats are probably the most successful survivors on the planet. In spite of thousands of years of conflict with humans and the numerous predators that feed off them, they continue to adapt and thrive. They eat almost anything, from your fruit and vegetables in your garden to the electrical wiring in your house and the radiator hoses in your car. Since their incisors (two up, two down) grow continuously, even if they’re not eating, they have to gnaw constantly.

Rats can quickly take over almost any environment. A female rat reaches sexual maturity in only three months and can produce a litter in just three weeks. A female can re-mate within 24 hours of giving birth and can produce up to seven litters in a year (with six to 12 young in each). Since the average life span is one year, a pair of rats (and their offspring) can produce about 200 rats in that first year. If you do the math, you’ll find that you could have upwards of 2,000,000 rats within three years.

Obviously, the attrition rate for rats has to be phenomenal or the entire world would be covered in rats to a depth higher than the roof of your house. Rats are a significant part of the food chain, and they have a whole lot of predators: cats, dogs, hawks, owls, weasels, snakes and even themselves.

If their environment gets crowded enough, any altruistic behavior is cast aside and they can turn cannibalistic. Rats also are carriers of disease: salmonella, smallpox, typhus and a veritable host of other potential ailments.

Although seldom seen under normal conditions, there are always signs if rats are present. They leave their spindle-shaped droppings everywhere. If there are enough rats hanging around, there will be a stale smell. You may see evidence of gnawing on electric cords or at the bottom of wooden doors. Rats tend to use the same “trails” over and over again. When they run, they leave greasy rub marks along the wall. Even if they aren’t often seen, they can be heard. Listen for squeaking or gnawing sounds in walls, cupboards, ceilings and under floors.

Rat are opportunists and will exploit any kind of structural defect (e.g., badly fitted doors, access points for pipes and cables) to enter your home. To reduce the number of rats on your property, keep your home and property clean. Make certain your garbage can is tightly sealed. Keep stacked materials such as firewood away from your house. Clean out your sheds periodically to reduce the possibility of rats using them for nests. Dispose of fallen fruit and seed (especially bird seed) as much as possible. Don’t leave pet food out overnight.

Inside your home, snap traps are still your best bet for getting rid of rats. When it comes to snap traps, there are two things to remember. First, rats are very cautious animals. They will avoid anything new in their environment, so place the trap where you know they’ve been active but don’t “set” it. After a few days, the rat will become accustomed to its presence and then you can bait it.

The second thing to remember is, unlike mice, rats are gluttons, so bait the trap with peanut butter. The odor is very attractive and it is difficult to remove from the trap. Make certain the traps are placed where your kids and pets can’t reach them.

If you decide to use poison baits, remember that they have some significant drawbacks. What can poison a rat can poison a pet or a child. Read and follow the label directions very carefully. A poisoned rat can die in places you can’t get at. In hot weather, the odor of a rotting rat can linger for weeks.

If you run across a dead rat, get rid of it as fast as you can. Wrap the carcass in newspaper or put it in a plastic bag and place it in a tightly covered garbage can. If the rat is injured or is sickened by the poisoned bait, you’ll have to kill it yourself before disposing of it. Try not to touch the rat with your bare hands. Rats have fleas and mites and, once the rat gets sick or dies, they will be looking for a new meal.

Once you’ve managed to dispose of the rat, wash your hands with soap and hot water (even if you used gloves).

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.

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