|The black rat is a smaller relative of the brown
rat and is found in populated areas throughout the world. It was the carrier
of the bubonic plague, or ďblack death,Ē in the Middle Ages. Brought to
Europe in the ships of Crusaders returning from the Holy Land, the black
rat carried with it a flea that infected more than 25 million people with
the bubonic plague. This unwelcome rodent was severely attacked and is
now scarce in much of Europe.
Habitat: The black rat was widespread in
Europe and North America centuries ago, when it had more opportunities
to live alongside humans. But gradual improvements in pest control have
almost eliminated it from both regions. Today, the black rat is more prevalent
in warmer climates, which it prefers. In the tropics it may live outside
among rocks or in tree stumps, especially in locations where food is plentiful.
It lives on the upper floors of warehouses and granaries, nesting in warm holes, especially during winter. Unlike the related brown rat, which is often found in ditches and sewers, the black rat rarely swims. Using its long tail for balance, the black rat can easily run along a shipís rigging. The black rat has good eyesight and a keen sense of smell. It is at home in granaries and warehouses, which provide food and protection. The black rat rarely goes outside in a cool climate.
Breeding: The black rat is active mostly at night, and little is known about its social habits. It is a prolific rodent and breeds throughout the year with a peak breeding period in the summer. Mild winter extend the breeding season, causing an increase in the population. Once a pair has mated, the male leaves the female and looks for other females to mate with. Three weeks after mating, the female gives birth to five to ten babies in a nest of rags, straw, and paper. Born blind, deaf, and hairless, the young huddle together to keep warm. After a week their eyes open, they can hear, and their coats start to appear. At three months, the young rats leave their mother and are ready to mate.
Black Rat and Man: The black rat carries many fatal diseases including typhus and salmonella. It also hosts the Oriental rat flea, which spreads bubonic plague. For centuries, people have been trying to exterminate the black rat as well as other rats. Today, the population of the black rat is steadily diminishing in cool climates, where it lives in buildings and is easier to control than the brown rat. The black rat is less easy to control in warmer climates, where it often lives outdoors.
Food and Feeding: The black rat prefers cereals and fruit to live prey. In the tropic it eats coconuts and sugarcane. This rat causes great damage in grain stores because it has to gnaw constantly to keep its ever growing teeth at the right length. It splits open the sacks of grain and eats as much as it can. Then it destroys what is left by trampling on and urinating over the remains. The black rat primarily cereals and fruit. Like the house mouse, it holds its food in its forepaws while it eats.
Related Species: There are 78 species of
Rattus, including the brown, or Norway, rat, R. norvegicus, which is common
near human habitations.
Identifying the Black Rat: Variations in
coat color make it easy to confuse the black rat with the brown rat, but
there are clear differences between them.
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