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Rats, Fleas and History: And why the plague is a total bummer 

click to enlarge Golden mantle ground squirrel mooching at Crater Lake.
  • Golden mantle ground squirrel mooching at Crater Lake.
Golden mantle ground squirrel mooching at Crater Lake.
A little while back, I went to the defense of our much-maligned rodent-eating reptilian friend, the Western Rattlesnake. In that piece, I asked people to be considerate of where they go and how they act while in rattlesnake country. The same holds true when among rodents.

No one in their right mind would invite a rattlesnake into their lap to munch on a rodent, the same holds true for our friendly - sometimes way too friendly - peanut-eating, Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel, Spermophilius lateralis.

Rattlesnakes injure and kill people by biting and injecting venom; ground squirrels kill people by sharing their fleas that in turn bite people and inject one of the deadliest diseases to infect humanity: the Black Death. And, so you get the point, the fleas that carry the disease can be found on several species of rodents living throughout Central Oregon.

The photo above is, unfortunately, a common sight wherever humans and golden mantles meet. Because the squirrel is from the human perspective, such an attractive animal and often becomes a nuisance as an insistent moocher, people are quick to obey the animal's begging for food.

The combination is a bad scenario, not only from the standpoint of human health, but for the ground squirrel as well. Human food is not good for wildlife, and the diseases wildlife carry are definitely not good for humans.

The lovely young woman pictured above is a perfect candidate for the transfer of disease to humans. If at that very moment there happened to be a quarrel going on among the ground squirrel's fleas for room to make a living, the exodus from squirrel to human will be quick. If the flea happens to be carrying the bacterium Yersinia pestis, otherwise known as the Bubonic Plague or Black Death, there is a good chance it will be transferred to the flea's host.

In 1984, Bubonic Plague was transmitted to a 10-year-old girl living in Central Oregon after her cat scratched her. The outdoor cat was infected by contact with wild rodents it was killing, probably infected by the Ground Squirrel Flea, Diamanus montanus, or any one of the other 13 species of fleas that carry the plague.

"Wharf rats," a.k.a "brown rat" or "common rat," "Hanover rat," "Norwegian rat" or more scientifically: Rattus norvegicus is one of the best known rats, one of the largest, and the most important vectors of the fleas that carry plague. Most scientific circles believe they originated in northern China, and as civilization spread around the earth, the rats came right along.

Rattus norvrgicus is the dominant rat in Europe and much of North America; they come in brown or gray. The body is up to 10 inches long with a tail as long as its body. Selective breeding produced the laboratory rat, as well as pet rats. And rats are the most successful mammal on the planet, other than humans.

I must digress for a moment... Because of today's diverse lifestyles, it would be prudent of me to separate "Wharf Rats" from wharf rats. "Wharf Rats" are a group of concertgoers who have chosen to live drug and alcohol free. Their primary purpose at shows is to make themselves available to anyone who feels they want to "kick the habit" - unlike flea-infested wharf rats that have things no one wants!

It was the infamous wharf rats, Rattus norvrgicu, which spread the Black Death all over civilization in the 1300's. It is thought to have begun when rats and their fleas left Central Asia or India and spread to Europe. The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75 million people, of which approximately 25-50 million occurred in Europe; a pandemic that killed almost 60% of Europe's inhabitants.

Thanks to rats and fleas, plague returned to Europe every generation with varying virulence and moralities past the 1700s. During this period, more than 100 plague epidemics swept across Europe. Twenty years after the Pilgrims made their epic voyage to what is now Massachusetts - bringing rats and fleas with them - progeny of those very same rats and fleas carried the Black Death to London, killing 100,000 people.

Living conditions in those days was abominable; human waste thrown into the streets along with garbage and awful offal allowed the plague to spread easily. Our living conditions are, in most places, much more sanitary. In spite of the changes, however, rats and other rodents continue to flourish and they still carry fleas, and the fleas still carry the plague.

The next time you are camping in our beautiful forest and have a golden mantle come begging, chase it away singing that old ditty, "Ring-around-the-rosies; pocket full of posies; ashes, ashes, all fall down." It's the theme song of the plague.

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