The brown rat, common rat, Hanover rat, Norway rat, Norwegian rat, or wharf rat (Rattus norvegicus) is one of the best known and most common rats, and also one of the largest. Thought to have originated in northern China, this rodent has now spread to all continents, except Antarctica, and is the dominant rat in Europe and much of North America. It lives wherever humans live, particularly in urban areas. It is a brown or grey rodent, with a body up to long, with the tail a similar length; the male weighs on average and the female .
Selective breeding of Rattus norvegicus has produced the laboratory rat, an important model organism in biological research, as well as pet rats. It is the most successful mammal on the planet, other than humans.
By the early to middle part of the 19th century, British academics were aware that the brown rat was not native to Norway, hypothesizing (incorrectly) that it may have come from Ireland, Gibraltar or across the English Channel with William the Conqueror. As early as 1850, however, a more correct understanding of the rat's origins was beginning to develop. The British novelist Charles Dickens acknowledged the misnomer in the 2 June 1888 edition of his weekly journal, All the Year Round, writing:
"Now there is a mystery about the native country of the best known species of rat, the common brown rat. It is frequently called, in books and otherwise, the 'Norway rat,' and it is said to have been imported into this country in a ship-load of timber from Norway. Against this hypothesis stands the fact that when the brown rat had become common in this country, it was unknown in Norway, although there was a small animal like a rat, but really a lemming, which made its home there.
Academics began to understand the origins and corrected etymology of the brown rat towards the end of the 19th century, as seen in the 1895 text Natural History by American scholar Alfred Henry Miles:
"The brown rat is the species common in England, and best known throughout the world. It is said to have travelled from Persia to England less than two hundred years ago and to have spread from thence to other countries visited by English ships.
Though the assumptions surrounding this species' origins were not yet entirely accurate, by the 20th century it was established among naturalists that the brown rat did not originate in Norway, rather that the species came from central Asia and (likely) China. Despite this, this species' common name of "Norway rat" is still in use today.
Brown rats have acute hearing, are sensitive to ultrasound, and possess a very highly developed olfactory sense. Their average heart rate is 300 to 400 beats per minute, with a respiratory rate of around 100 per minute. The vision of a pigmented rat is poor, around 20/600, while a non-pigmented (albino) has no melanin in its eyes, and has not only around 20/1200 vision, but also a terrible scattering of light within its vision. Brown rats are dichromates who perceive colours rather like a human with red-green colorblindness, and their colour saturation may be quite faint. Their blue perception, however, also has UV perceptors, allowing them to see ultraviolet lights that some species cannot.
Brown rats are capable of producing ultrasonic vocalizations. As pups, young rats use different types of ultrasonic cries to elicit and direct maternal search behavior, as well as to regulate their mother's movements in the nest. Although pups will produce ultrasounds around any other rats at 7 days old, by 14 days old they significantly reduce ultrasound production around male rats as a defensive response. Adult rats will emit ultrasonic vocalizations in response to predators or perceived danger, the frequency and duration of such cries depending on the sex and reproductive status of the rat. The female rat will also emit ultrasonic vocalizations during mating.
In clinical studies, the laughter is associated with positive emotional feelings, and social bonding occurs with the tickler, resulting in the rats becoming conditioned to seek the tickling. However, as the rats age, there appears to be a decline in the tendency to laugh.
Foraging behavior is often population-specific, and varies by environment and food source. Brown rats living near a hatchery in West Virginia catch fingerling fish. Some colonies along the banks of the Po river in Italy will dive for mollusks, a practice demonstrating social learning among members of this species. Rats on the island of Norderoog in the North Sea stalk and kill sparrows and ducks.
When lactating, female rats display a 24 hour rhythm of maternal behavior, and will usually spend more time attending to smaller litters than large ones.
Brown rats live in large hierarchical groups, either in burrows or subsurface places such as sewers and cellars. When food is in short supply, the rats lower in social order are the first to die. If a large fraction of a rat population is exterminated, the remaining rats will increase their reproductive rate, and quickly restore the old population level.
The brown rat may have been present in Europe as early as 1553, a conclusion drawn from an illustration and description by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner in his book Historiae animalium, published 1551-1558. Though Gesner's description could apply to the black rat, his mention of a large percentage of albino specimens – not uncommon among wild populations of brown rats – adds credibility to this conclusion. Reliable reports dating to the 18th century document the presence of the brown rat in England in 1730, France in 1735, Germany in 1750, and Spain in 1800, becoming widespread during the Industrial Revolution. It did not reach North America until around 1750-1755.
In the absence of humans, brown rats prefer damp environments such as river banks. However, the great majority are now linked to man-made environments, such as sewage systems.
It is often said that there are as many rats in cities as people, but this varies from area to area depending on climate, living conditions, etc. Brown rats in cities tend not to wander extensively, often staying within of their nest if a suitable concentrated food supply is available, but they will range more widely where food availability is lower. In New York City there is great debate over the size of the rat population with estimates from almost 100 million rats to as few as 250,000. Experts suggest New York is a particularly attractive place for rats because of its aging infrastructure, high moisture and poverty rates. Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the degree of rat infestation among neighborhoods in New York City and the risk of residents of those neighborhoods getting bitten by rats.
In the United Kingdom some figures show that the rat population has been rising, with estimations that 81 million rats reside in the UK. Those figures would mean that there are 1.3 rats per person in the country. High rat populations in the UK are often attributed to the mild climate, which allow them higher survival rates during the winter months.
Antarctica is almost completely covered by ice and has no permanent human inhabitants, making it uninhabitable by rats. The Arctic has extremely cold winters that rats cannot survive outdoors, and the human population density is extremely low making it difficult for rats to travel from one habitation to another. When the occasional rat infestation is noticed and eliminated, the rats are unable to re-infest it from an adjacent one. Isolated islands are also able to eliminate rat populations because of low human population density and geographic distance from other rat populations.
In the first year of the program, of arsenic trioxide were spread throughout 8,000 buildings on farms along the Saskatchewan border. In 1953 the much less toxic and more effective poison, Warfarin, was introduced. By 1960 the number of rat infestations in Alberta dropped to below 200 per year.
Currently, only zoos, universities, and research institutes are allowed to own caged rats in Alberta, and possession of an unlicensed rat (including pet rats) is punishable by a $5,000 fine or 60 days in jail. The adjacent and similarly landlocked province of Saskatchewan initiated a rat control program in 1972, and has managed to reduce the number of rats in the province substantially, although they have not been eliminated.
This species can also serve as a reservoir for Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, though the disease usually spreads from rats to humans when domestic cats feed on infected brown rats. The parasite has a long history with the brown rat, and there are indications that the parasite has evolved to alter an infected rat's perception to cat predation, making it more susceptible to predation and increasing the likelihood of transmission.
Surveys and specimens of brown rat populations throughout the world have shown that this species is often associated with outbreaks of trichinosis, but the extent to which the brown rat is responsible in transmitting Trichinella larvae to humans and other synanthropic animals is at least somewhat debatable. Trichinella pseudospiralis, a parasite previously not considered to be a potential pathogen in humans or domestic animals, has been found to be pathogenic in humans and carried by brown rats.
Brown rats are sometimes mistakenly thought to harbor bubonic plague, a possible cause of The Black Death. However, the bacteria responsible, Yersinia pestis, incubates in only a few rodent species and is usually transmitted zoonotically by rat fleas - common rodents include ground squirrels and wood rats. In short, a brown rat may catch fleas that have plague, but cannot contract the disease itself, whereas other non-rodent species like dogs, cats, and humans can be bitten by diseased fleas or come in contact with an infected animal and then become infected themselves.
Different views exist on the topic of feeding live rats, or other species, to captive animals. Some organizations feel there is a large potential for injury to the reptiles if they are fed live animals instead of prekilled. A captive animal that does not kill the rat quickly enough will often suffer injury, e.g., from being bitten or scratched. Even feedings supervised by the owner of the captive animal can result in an injured or dead animal, as rats in particular are faster than humans and many other animals.
Other groups view the practice of feeding live rats to reptiles as cruelty to animals because the rat is not guaranteed a quick or painless death, and equate it to rat baiting or cockfighting, which are illegal in most parts of the world. These groups feel that reptiles should be conditioned to accept dead rats, as is the rule with many zoos.
Some countries, such as South Africa, as well as various municipalities worldwide, have banned the feeding of live vertebrate animals (like rats) to predators because the practice is seen as inhumane.
Rattus norvegicus genome & use as model animal
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