The “Desert rats” were the Real Harbinger of the Black Death, Mice Were Just Fall Guys, Study

The bubonic plague which hit Europe from 1347 to 1343 claimed the lives of 25 million people. The Ebola epidemic in comparison appear small time. For hundreds of years the blame fell on the rats. It was generally known that the rats did it. Who’d think otherwise? The rats fit the stereotype. They are dirty, ugly and live in the sewers.

Maybe you can blame gerbils from Asia.

However, according to latest study, they might be just the fall guys. The gerbils did it! What are those? And they are from Asia yet. You mean they swam from Asia to Europe? That’s rather too far, don’t you think so? They are hamsters and they are also known as “desert rats”.

Rodents carry pathogenic bacteria on their bodies which is just normal because of their way of life. But gerbils are not as dirty compared their mice and rat cousins. Anyway let’s continue. One of these bacteria they were carrying was the cause of the bubonic plague that almost decimated the human population of Europe in 1800s until it disappeared.

The general consensus was that the bacteria arrived in Europe and started contaminating people which started Black Death. That’s the story.

Then there’s another version which is according to modern researchers might be the real one. So the source of the plague was Asia, that’s confirmed. The gerbils didn’t swim but made themselves very comfortable riding the ships travelling between Asia and Europe, though the ships may have made some stopovers in other countries.

The difference is that it was not the mice and rats but the gerbils who did it.

“I don’t think there was any sustainable reservoir in Europe,” Nils Stenseth of the University of Oslo said Tuesday in an email.


He and his colleagues make their case in a published article, which will appear Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers analyzed ancient tree rings which are great source in studying the climate both of Asia and Europe. Plagues affect humans in response to changes in climate. Scientists are trying to determine whether there’s a link between the climate shift and the time when the plague would strike certain places.

There was no evidence of this which they could find in Europe.  In Asia however, it was a totally different situation.

The researchers were able to pinpoint 16 probable conditions between 1346 and 1837 which the plague may have arrived in Europe from Asia courtesy of maritime transportation. These conditions always happened when there is climate changes in Asia as recorded by tree rings from Pakistan with a lag time of about 15 years.

Camels and individuals travelling on caravans could have unknowingly picked the pathogens up as they started going on their trip to Europe, passing through several important trade routes along the way, according to the researchers.


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