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.


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.


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


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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.

Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)

Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]


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