Will rats one day rule the world ?

Dossier ~ Friday 30th April 2010
The Shooting Star (1942) - Page 6

In certain areas of Paris, there are four to ten times more rats than human beings ! In Brussels, the centre of which is pretty filthy, the ratio is even higher. The relationship between rats and mankind has always been uneasy, despite the fact that in 1980 the animals were listed among the 'nouveaux animaux de compagnie' (animals deemed worthy of a certain level of human protection) by French vet Michel Bellangeon. Snowy would like to take this opportunity to enlighten you about the fascinating world of rats.

Are rats cleverer than human beings ?

In some ways rats are more perceptive than humans. Read the opening pages of The Shooting Star : as disaster looms on Earth, rats take to the streets and run away. They aren't going to hang about and be caught off-guard by nature's tantrums: earthquakes, tsunamis and floods. As the common expression goes, 'rats abandon a sinking ship' when they sense trouble ahead. But how do they do it ? The amazing truth is that rats speak ! They have about a thousand different squeaks and sounds that they make for various reasons, including finding their way around and warning of impending danger. Furthermore, they emit ultrasonic sounds that are too high in pitch to be heard by humans. Not only do rats make use of such a surprisingly large 'vocabulary', but they also use body language (the positioning of ears, body and tail, for example) and chemical signals: smell plays a crucial role among rats, aiding the recognition of individuals and groups. So would it be fair to say that rats are cleverer than human beings ? There certainly seems to be a strong case for this argument. Do you agree or not ? Vote now !

Would you like to speak "rat' "

Man can only hear a fraction of the sounds emitted by rats: growls ('Careful, danger !'), squeaks ('I'm scared !') and the grinding of teeth ('I feel good', but also, 'She's hot stuff, that little rat over there !') Besides these expressions, rats squeak thousands of messages at such high frequencies that mere human ears cannot perceive them. And that's not all: they can also pick up ultrasonic sounds made by other animals, notably cats. This extreme sensitivity to the slightest sounds explains in some instances why rats often 'abandon a sinking ship' while human beings are still blissfully unaware that anything is amiss.

Are rats older than mankind ?

There are six million rats in Paris; in Brussels there are around a million. This is nothing compared to cities like Bombay (India), Accra (Ghana) or Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). One thing is for sure: there are more rats in the world than human beings, at least ten times more !

Are rats man's distant cousins ?

As strange as it may seem, the fact is that rats are mankind's distant cousins ! How is this possible ? Human beings and rats are mammals  -  they bring ready-formed living beings into the world  -  as opposed to oviparous animals, which produce eggs in which new life forms outside of the mother. Mammals first appeared on Earth 65 million years ago. The oldest known mammal is the Purgatorius, named after the location at which its fossilised remains were first discovered  -  Purgatory Mountain in the USA. The funny thing is that the Purgatorius looked like a rat! The small animal was certainly shrewd : it outlived the dinosaurs. Over the millions of years that followed mammals diversified making way for rats and human beings, making rats our distant cousins. By this logic, it would also be right to welcome Snowy and the cat at Marlinspike Hall as our long-lost cousins, as they are also both mammals like us.

A bad reputation

What would you do if you came face to face with a rat ? Would you run away, or stand your ground ? Rats have decided to follow human beings very closely, the reason being that humans have developed a habit of storing and stockpiling food: rats just hate to see food lying about. Humans are incredibly wasteful creatures. Millions of tonnes of food are thrown away every year just in the scraps we leave behind from meals. This creates a paradise for rats. Ships have always had food stored on board to sustain crews during long journeys, and sometimes food has been carried as cargo. This presents an open invitation to any rats that might be thinking of embarking. Black rats managed to hitch a lift from Asia to Europe in this way, bringing millions of fleas with them. The fleas were hosts to microbes that unleashed one of the deadliest pandemics in world history  -  the Plague, otherwise known as the Black Death. It is estimated that 30 to 60% of the population of Europe was killed by the disease over the course of the 14th century. From this point onwards, rats have always had a bad name. Even the word 'rat' has negative connotations. A 'love rat' is someone who cheats on his or her partner while in a relationship. Even criminals use the word in a pejorative way: to 'rat' on someone means to inform the police about a crime they have committed, often breaking the criminal code of 'honour among thieves'. Fairytales and stories about rats abound. The rats that infested the town of Hamelin in the story The Pied Piper of Hamelin, were drawn away from the town by a mysterious musician who could play a tune that hypnotised the rodents. When the mayor of the town refused to pay the fee levied by the magical musician, the vengeful piper put all the local children under his spell. Just like the rats, the children were fascinated by the melodious music emanating from the Pied Piper, leaving us to ponder whether there are any other similarities between rats and children !

Ratatouille / Disney Pixar 2007

Do rats have any redeeming features ?

Some people would like to see the rat rehabilitated. The latest example of this attitude of forgive and forget is the film Ratatouille with its protagonist, a rat who aspires to be a gourmet chef. At the Opéra de Paris, novice dancers are called 'little rats' in reference to the fact that their teachers try to teach them how to move as silently as rats. Despite these light-hearted examples, rats are still seen as vermin. Dogs called 'ratters' are specially bred and trained to hunt rats. Pest controllers make a fortune tracking rats in the big cities around the world. But rats always seem to be one step ahead: they have an extraordinary ability to develop resistance to the poison used to kill them. Furthermore, a rat will never fall into the same trap twice. American Professor Matthew Wilson is a big fan of rats: 'These animals are capable of anything: climbing, swimming, digging. Their bodies adapt to poisons. They have a distinctly superior visual memory to human beings, which enables them to find their way about with precision.'

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