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Lucas Adams
Lucas Adams

7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Rats

Lucas Adams
Lucas Adams

Most people think rats are gross. Filthy and unwanted, they’re known for carrying diseases and sometimes giant pieces of pizza. But Robert Sullivan thinks differently: in 2004, Sullivan published a masterpiece on the critters, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. In it, Sullivan spends a year staking out alley rats, interviewing rat catchers, and digging through the critters’ contribution to history from housing reform to entertainment. Here are seven short facts we can’t stop thinking about from Sullivan’s incredible book.

1. RATS LOVE TOUCHING STUFF, BECAUSE IT HELPS THEM FIND THEIR WAY HOME.

Rats are thigmophilic (touch loving). As Sullivan points out, it’s why they feel most comfortable in corners, where they can feel up against a wall while scouting for an escape route. As they weave their way through trash-strewn alleyways, stumble through pipes, and flee across kitchen floors, rats “develop a muscle memory” of the spaces, and the best ways to get to their destination. Oddly enough, this knowledge is passed on when a rat dies: In Sullivan’s words, “Deep in their rat tendons, rats know history.” Younger rats follow the lead of older rats and learn these routes for themselves, preserving the pathways to food and safety for another rat generation.

2. SUBWAY WORKERS HAVE A CUTE NICKNAME FOR RATS THAT LIVE IN THE SUBWAY.

According to Sullivan, subway workers in New York call the rats that live in stations and hop around the rails “track rabbits.”

3. QUEEN VICTORIA HAD A RAT CATCHER.

Decked out in a top hat and sash decorated with cast-iron rats, Jack Black was an early pioneer of rat catching. Black dubbed himself the official rat catcher of Queen Victoria, even though he never had a royal decree from her—though he did once sell her some rats. While Black spent most of his time catching the critters, he also collected them and sold them to Victorian women as pets. Queen Victoria was one of his clients, as was children’s book author (and scientist) Beatrix Potter. Black was an equal-opportunity seller. Some of his rats went to rat pits (see below). Meanwhile, others became some of the earliest lab rats, including a specimen of albino rats he sold to scientists in France. As Sullivan theorizes: “I like to think that all the great scientific achievements that have been made in the modern scientific era as a result of work with laboratory rats are ultimately the result of the work of Jack Black, rat catcher.”

4. THE CANADIAN PROVINCE OF ALBERTA IS RAT-FREE. 

When rats were spotted on the southeastern border of Alberta, Canada, in 1950, the Canadian government sprung into action with an intensive rat-control program. The Alberta agricultural department told Sullivan the program has kept Alberta “an essentially rat-free province.” Still, there have been moments when the rats have made inroads, as Sullivan notes: “Alberta did have rats in its border areas for a brief period, and at that time, one Alberta mayor refused to believe it. He stated that he would eat any rats found in his town.” He had a change of heart, however, when “presented with a bushel full of Rattus norvegicus.”

5. RAT FIGHT PITS WERE A POPULAR PASTIME IN 19TH CENTURY AMERICA. 

In the 1830s (well before The Bachelor was the cruelest spectacle the public could stomach), rat fighting was all the rage. Onlookers would bet how long it would take for a dog to kill a group of rats. One of New York City’s biggest pits was owned by Kit Burns, an Irish immigrant linked to the infamous Dead Rabbits Gang. Burns operated his pit out of Sportsman’s Hall, located at 273 Water Street, where he had numerous dogs ready for the matches (“Jack” and “Hunky” were two of his favorites). Occasionally, Burns even subbed in ferrets. But he never crossed one line that other pits did: putting men in the ring.

By the late 1860s, rat pits were under fire. The founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Henry Bergh, was pushing for raids across the city, and Sportsman’s Hall was one of the last operating rat pits. Before long, Kit started diversifying his income. He rented the bar out to prayer meetings in the morning, and then rented it out for three full years as The Kit Burns Mission, a home for “wayward women.”

But Burns didn’t exactly give up rat fighting: 10 years later, he and the crowd at his new bar The Band-Box were busted for a rat fight on November 21, 1870. He died of a cold before he could be brought to trial. As for Bergh and others pushing back against animal cruelty, it’s thanks to their work that rat pit fights have faded both in popularity and from memory.

6. JAMES AUDUBON WAS A RAT HUNTER.

You know James Audubon for his iconic The Birds of North America. But did you know that the guy who traveled across the early United States documenting its avian wildlife also had a thing for rats? He made this lithograph of Black Rats snacking on eggs in a barn. He also used his downtime to chase after them. When he was living in New York in 1839 he got the city's mayor to let him “shoot Rats at the Battery early in the morning, so as not to expose the inhabitants in the vicinity to danger…” Turns out, in addition to being one of America’s foremost naturalists, Audubon was also considerate to his neighbors.

7. THERE IS A RAT CATCHING TRADE MAGAZINE.

Sullivan speaks highly of Pest Control Technology magazine throughout Rats: He attends one of their “Rat Management Summits” and reads columns in the magazine by rat control legend Bobby Corrigan, author of the industry standard Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Management Professionals. The magazine’s website features a regular podcast interviewing pest catching pros, and also, occasionally, poetry.

For more on Sullivan’s wonderful book, be sure to click here.

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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