They may have a reputation as disease-riddled pests, but rats are some of the most intelligent and adaptable creatures on the planet. While most people don’t want to find one in their home or crawling around a subway platform, rats offer tremendous value to society, and humans have made invaluable scientific advances thanks to these rodents. In addition to their place in research laboratories, rats have played a prominent role in history and culture — from Victorian-era urbanization to modern traditions at sporting events. Discover six fascinating facts about these remarkable rodents below.
If you’ve ever seen a rat in New York City, chances are their ancestors have called that area home for decades. Thanks to DNA sequencing and rat tracking, researchers have learned that rats tend to remain quite close to where they were born, even over the course of several generations. These findings are the result of a 2017 study led by Matthew Combs, a former graduate student at Fordham University. Combs discovered two genetically distinct subpopulations of New York City rats — uptown and downtown — and even genetic differences among rats in adjacent neighborhoods such as the West and East Villages. Combs says that a mere 5% of rats stray from their home turf, meaning that the vast majority of rat families have remained close to where their ancestors settled upon first arriving in New York on transatlantic ships in the mid-18th century.
In addition to geography-based genetic differences, rats in New York City have adapted their diets to living in the concrete jungle. Certain mutations found in the city’s rats demonstrate that they are able to consume larger amounts of processed sugars and fats than their rural counterparts, due to their penchant for scavenging off human food waste. (This also helps explain why New York is the only place you can find Pizza Rat.)
Many of us are familiar with bomb-sniffing dogs, but what about land mine-sniffing rats? Such creatures are common in central Africa, where the Belgian nonprofit APOPO (the acronym stands for “Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development” in English) has trained African giant pouched rats to help clear fields of unexploded land mines from past conflicts. These rats weigh less than three pounds — light enough to avoid setting off the mines — and can clear swathes of land the size of a tennis court in just 30 minutes. For comparison, a human with a metal detector would take four days to accomplish the same job.
These rodent heroes have helped clear over 13,200 mines from fields scattered across Tanzania, Mozambique, and Angola since the nonprofit was founded in 1997. More recently, the creatures were introduced in Cambodia, where a rat named Magawa became particularly famous. Magawa spent five years sniffing out land mines across the country, helping to secure over 2.4 million square feet of land and finding 71 explosives, before retiring in 2021. Though Magawa passed away six months after his retirement, his legacy lives on: In 2020, he received a gold medal — the highest civilian award an animal can receive — from the British veterinary charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, becoming the first rat to earn such a distinction.
Albertans have long sought to guard their borders against potential pests. The Agricultural Pests Act of Alberta of 1942 required every person and municipality to destroy any animal designated as a pest and likely to harm crops or livestock. In the 1920s, rats found their way to the neighboring province of Saskatchewan, and by 1950, they had migrated to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. As a result, the provincial government established a 373-mile-long Rat Control Zone (RCZ) along the border to prevent the vermin from continuing farther into Alberta. Though there have been several scares since — including a group of rats that was released in Calgary in 2004 and subsequently extracted by a neighborhood posse — the 255,541 square miles of Alberta have remained almost entirely rat-free for decades, making it the world’s largest inhabited area without rats.
Scientists once believed that only humans and chimps succumbed to peer pressure. But thanks to a 2008 study of brown rats, researchers found that rats were heavily influenced by the behavior of the other members of their pack, which in turn had an impact on what each rat ate and how each rat acted. The study observed rats that had been trained to avoid cinnamon-flavored food pellets by injecting them with a nausea-inducing chemical, but researchers found that the creatures would still consume the pellets if they smelled a cinnamon odor emanating from the breath of other rats. They also observed that rats could experience the “bystander effect,” meaning they were less likely to help another member of their pack if they saw other rats also failing to act. Neurobiologists at the University of Chicago studied rats that had been helpful in one-on-one interactions, who then became less likely to lend a helpful hand in larger group settings.
Not to be confused with the contemporary actor and musician of the same name, Jack Black was a Victorian-era showman with a different claim to fame: rat-catching. As Europe rapidly urbanized in the 19th century, rat populations in cities exploded, and governments began paying individuals to keep infestations under control. Black was one of the most famous of the so-called “rat-catchers,” reaching his peak popularity in the mid-19th century. His prowess in catching rodents was unmatched, and massive crowds would gather to see him in action. Black would set up a stage and let the many rats he captured run all over his body in an effort to add to the spectacle.
He was also something of a fashion icon. His trademark rat-catching outfit consisted of white leather pants, a scarlet waistcoat, a rat belt buckle, and a sash emblazoned with rat-shaped medallions (made from melting down his wife’s saucepan in the kitchen). Though Black promoted himself as Queen Victoria’s official rat-catcher, it’s unlikely he ever held a royal decree — but that didn’t make his rat-catching any less successful.
In hockey, a hat trick occurs when a single player scores three goals in one game, and it’s common for fans to celebrate by hurling their hats onto the ice. But fans of the NHL’s Florida Panthers are better known for celebrating something called a “rat trick.” The tradition dates back to October 8, 1995, when a rat scurried through the Panthers’ locker room before a game against the Calgary Flames (an amusing coincidence, given that Alberta is so proud of being rat-free). After removing the rat, Panthers captain Scott Mellanby went on to score two goals, which teammate John Vanbiesbrouck dubbed a “rat trick.” The night following Mellanby’s feat, a fan hurled a plastic rat onto the ice, an act that has since become a larger Florida hockey tradition. During the playoffs, Panthers fans hurl thousands of plastic rats onto the ice in celebration of goals or victories — which then leads to minor delays while groups of 25 rat cleaners clear the ice so play can continue.