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Rats are various medium-sized, long-tailed rodents of the superfamily Muroidea. "True rats" are members of the genus Rattus, the most important of which to humans are the black rat, Rattus rattus, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus. Many members of other rodent genera and families are also called rats and share many characteristics with true rats.

Rats are typically distinguished from mice by their size; rats are generally large muroid rodents, while mice are generally small muroid rodents. The muroid family is very large and complex, and the common terms rat and mouse are not taxonomically specific. Generally, when someone discovers a large muroid, its common name includes the term rat, while if it is small, the name includes the term mouse - scientifically, the terms are not confined to members of the Rattus and Mus genera. Compare the taxonomic classification of the Pack rat and Cotton mouse.

Species and description

The best-known rat species are the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) and the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus). The group is generally known as the Old World rats or true rats, and originated in Asia. Rats are bigger than most Old World mice, which are their relatives, but seldom weigh over 500 grams (1 lb) in the wild.

The term "rat" is also used in the names of other small mammals which are not true rats. Examples include the North American pack rats, a number of species loosely called kangaroo rats, and others. Rats such as the Bandicoot rat (Bandicota bengalensis) are murine rodents related to true rats, but are not members of the genus Rattus. Male rats are called bucks, unmated females are called does, pregnant or parent females are called dams, and infants are called kittens or pups. A group of rats is either referred to as a pack or a mischief.

In Western countries, many people keep domesticated rats as pets. These are of the species R. norvegicus, which originated in the grasslands of Chinamarker and spread to Europe and eventually, in 1775, to the New World. Pet rats are Brown Rats descended from those bred for research, and are often called "fancy rats", but are the same species as the common city "sewer" rat. Domesticated rats tend to be both more docile than their wild ancestors and more disease prone, presumably due to inbreeding.

The common species are opportunistic survivors and often live with and near humans, therefore they are known as commensals. They may cause substantial food losses, especially in developing countries. However, the widely distributed and problematic commensal species of rats are a minority in this diverse genus. Many species of rats are island endemics and some have become endangered due to habitat loss or competition with the Brown, Black or Polynesian rat.

Wild rats can carry many different "zoonotic" pathogens, such as e.g. Leptospira, Toxoplasma gondii and Campylobacter, and may transfer these across species, for example to humans. The Black Death is traditionally believed to have been caused by the micro-organism Yersinia pestis, carried by the Tropical Rat Flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) which preyed on Black Rat living in European cities during the epidemic outbreaks of the Middle Ages; these rats were used as transport hosts. Today, this cycle still exists in many countries of the world and plague outbreaks still occur every year. Beside transmitting zoonotic pathogens, rats are also linked to the spread of contagious animal pathogens that may result in livestock diseases such as Classical Swine Fever and Foot-and-mouth disease.

The normal lifespan of rats ranges from two to five years, and is typically three years.

As pets

A domesticated rat
Specially bred rats have been kept as pets at least since the late 19th century. Pet rats are typically variants of the species Brown rat, but Black rats and Giant pouched rats are also known to be kept. Pet rats behave differently than their wild counterparts depending on how many generations they have been kept as pets. Pet rats do not pose any more of a health risk than pets such as cats and dogs. Tamed rats are generally friendly and can be taught to perform selected behaviors.

As subjects of scientific research

In 1895, Clark Universitymarker in Worcestermarker, Massachusettsmarker (United Statesmarker) established a population of domestic white brown rats to study the effects of diet and for other physiological studies. Over the years, rats have been used in many experimental studies, which have added to our understanding of genetics, diseases, the effects of drugs, and other topics that have provided a great benefit for the health and wellbeing of humankind. Laboratory rats have also proved valuable in psychological studies of learning and other mental processes (Barnett, 2002), as well as to understand group behavior and overcrowding (with the work of John B. Calhoun on behavioral sink). A 2007 study found rats to possess metacognition, a mental ability previously only documented in humans and some primates.

Domestic rats differ from wild rats in many ways. They are calmer and less likely to bite; they can tolerate greater crowding; they breed earlier and produce more offspring; and their brains, livers, kidneys, adrenal glands, and hearts are smaller (Barnett 2002).

Brown rats are often used as model organisms for scientific research. Since the publication of the Rat Genome Sequence , and other advances such as the creation of a rat SNP chip, and the production of knockout rats, the laboratory rat has become a useful genetic tool, although not as popular as mice. When it comes to conducting tests related to intelligence, learning, and drug abuse, rats are a popular choice due to their high intelligence, ingenuity, aggressiveness, and adaptability. Their psychology, in many ways, seems to be similar to humans. Entirely new breeds or "lines" of brown rats like the Wistar rat have been bred for use in laboratories. Much of the genome of Rattus norvegicus has been sequenced.

As food

Rats are edible by humans and are sometimes captured and eaten in emergency situations. For some cultures, rats are considered a staple. Bandicoot rats are an important food source among some peoples in Southeast Asia. Reasons why rat meat is not more widely eaten include the strong proscription against it in Halal and Kashrut tradition, and the fact that eating rat is not socially accepted in many cultures.

Another argument against eating rat is the risk of Weil's disease: the British SASmarker's rule book lists rat as the only meat which its members in action are not allowed to eat.

As a food, rats are often a more-readily available source of protein than other fauna. Some African slaves in the American South hunted wood rats (among other animals) to supplement their food rations. The Aborigines along the coast in Southern Queensland, Australia regularly included rats in their diet. In the Mishmi culture of India, rats are essential to the Mishmi traditional diet, as Mishmi women may eat no meat except fish, pork, wild birds and rats. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that rat meat makes up half the locally produced meat consumed in Ghanamarker, where cane rats are farmed and hunted for their meat.

Ricefield rats have been traditionally used as food in rice-producing regions, like in Valenciamarker, where along with the eel and local beans known as "garrafons" the rata de marjal was one of the main ingredients of the original paella (later replaced by rabbit, chicken and seafood). The rat-eating habits of the people of the rice growing region of Valencia were immortalized by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez in his novel Cañas y barro.

Ricefield rats (Rattus argentiventer) are also consumed in the Philippinesmarker and the Isaanmarker region of Thailandmarker, as well as Cambodiamarker, particularly when meat prices have been inflated. In late 2008, Reuters reported that the price of rat meat had quadrupled in Cambodia creating a hardship for the poor who could no longer afford it. Cambodia also exports about a metric ton of rats daily to Vietnammarker as food.

In some cultures, rats are or have been limited as an acceptable form of food to a particular social or economic class. The Musahar community in north India commercialised rat farming as a exotic delicacy. In the traditional cultures of the Hawaiians and the Polynesians, rat was a common food. When feasting, the Polynesian people of Rapa Nuimarker could eat rat, but the king was not allowed to due to the islanders' belief in a "state of sacredness" called tapu. In studying pre-contact archaeological sites in Hawaiimarker, archaeologists have found that the concentration of the remains of rats associated with commoner households counted for three times the animal remains associated with elite households. The rat bones found in all sites are fragmented, burned and covered in carbonized material, indicating that rats were eaten as food. The greater occurrence of rat remains associated with commoner households may indicate that the elites of pre-contact Hawaii did not consume them as a matter of status or taste.

The taboo against consuming rats as food is not unique to the world's major religions or Western cultures. Both the Shipibo people of Peru and Sirionó people of Bolivia have cultural taboos against the eating of rats.

Rats are a common food item for snakes, both in the wild, and as pets. Captive-bred ball pythons in particular, are fed a diet of mostly rats. Rats, as food items, are available from many suppliers who supply to individual snake owners as well as to large reptile zoos. In Britain the government in 2007 ruled out the feeding of any live mammal to another animal. The rule says the animal must be dead (frozen) then given to the animal to eat. The rule was put in to place mainly because of the pressure of the RSPCA and people who found it cruel.

In medicine

Rats can serve as zoonotic vectors for certain pathogens and thus cause disease, such as Lassa fever and Hantavirus. Rattus rattus, and the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis, are notorious for their role in epidemics of bubonic plague.

In culture

Ancient Romans did not generally differentiate between rats and mice, instead referring to the former as Mus Maximus (big mouse) and the latter as Mus Minimus (little mouse).

On the Isle of Manmarker (a dependency of the British Crown) there is a taboo against the word "rat." See longtail for more information.

In Eastern cultures

In Imperial Chinese culture, the rat (sometimes referred to as a mouse) is the first of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. People born in this year are expected to possess qualities associated with rats, including creativity, honesty, generosity, ambition, a quick temper and wastefulness. People born in a year of the rat are said to get along well with "monkeys" and "dragons," and to get along poorly with "horses."


In Indian tradition rats are recognized as the vehicle of Lord Ganesh and a rat's statue is always found in a temple of Ganesh. In the northwestern Indian city of Deshnokemarker, the rats at the Karni Matamarker Temple are held to be destined for reincarnation as Sadhus (Hindu holy men). The attending priests feed milk and grain to the rats, of which the pilgrims also partake. Eating food that has been touched by rats is considered a blessing from god.

In Western cultures

Western associations with the rat are generally negative. For instance, "Rats!" is used as a substitute for various vulgar interjections in the English language. These associations do not draw, per se, from any biological or behavioral trait of the rat, but possibly from the association of rats (and fleas) with the 14th-century medieval plague called the Black Death. Rats are seen as vicious, unclean, parasitic animals that steal food and spread disease. However some people in Western cultures keep rats as pets and conversely find them to be tame, clean, intelligent, and playful.

Rats are often used in scientific experiments; animal rights activists allege that treatment of rats in this context is cruel. The term "lab rat" is used, typically in a self-effacing manner, to describe a person whose job function requires that they spend a majority of their work time engaged in bench-level research (i.e. a scientist or research assistant).

Rat in terminology

Rats are frequently blamed for damaging food supplies and other goods, or spreading disease. Their reputation has carried into common parlance: in the English language, rat is often an insult. It is a term (noun and verb) in criminal slang for an informant - "to rat on someone" is to betray them by informing the authorities of a crime or misdeed they committed. Describing a person as "rat-like" usually implies he or she is unattractive and suspicious.

Among union, "rat" is a term for non-union employers or breakers of union contracts, and this is why unions use inflatable rats. [4390]

In religion

  • In Leviticus 11:29, rats are prohibited as food. (See 'as food' above.)


In fiction

Depictions of rats in fiction are historically inaccurate and negative. The most common falsehood is the squeaking almost always heard in otherwise realistic portrayals (i.e. non-anthropomorphic). While the recordings may be of actual squeaking rats, the noise is uncommon - they may do so only if distressed, hurt, or annoyed. Normal vocalizations are very high-pitched, well outside the range of human hearing. Rats are also often cast in vicious and aggressive roles when in fact it is their shyness which helps keep them undiscovered for so long in an infested home.

The actual portrayals of rats vary from negative to positive with a majority in the negative and ambiguous. The rat plays a villain in several mouse societies; from Brian Jacques's Redwall and Robin Jarvis's The Deptford Mice, to the roles of Disney's Professor Ratigan and Kate DiCamillo's Roscuro and Botticelli. Rats are also used as a mechanism in horror; being the titular malevolence in stories like The Rats, a symbol of evil as in H.P. Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls, or used as a method of torture like in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. Farther along the spectrum, rats enter the realm of ambiguity with depictions of selfish helpfulness—willing to help the main characters, for a price; E.B. White's Templeton, from Charlotte's Web, repeatedly reminds the other animals he is only working to save the main character's life because it means more food for him, and the cellar-rat of John Masefield's The Midnight Folk requires bribery to be of any assistance. Occasionally a fictional work centers around rats themselves as characters. Notable works include the society created by O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the award winning Doctor Rat, Williard, Rizzo the Rat of The Muppets, and films like Ratatouille.The movie Mon oncle d'Amérique ("My American Uncle"), a 1980 French film directed by Alain Resnais illustrates Henri Laborit's theories on evolutionary psychology and human behaviors using short sequences in the storyline showing rats experiments.

The Pied Piper

One of the oldest and most historic stories about rats is The Pied Piper of Hamelin, in which a rat-catcher leads away an infestation with enchanted music—the piper is later refused payment, so he in turn leads away the town's children. This tale, placed in Germany around the late 1200s, has inspired the realms of film, theatre, literature, and even opera. The subject of much research, some theories have intertwined the tale with events related to the Black Plague, in which black rats may have played an important role. Fictional works based on the tale that focus heavily on the rat aspect include Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and Belgian graphic novel Le Bal du Rat Mort (The Ball of the Dead Rat).

Taxonomy of Rattus

The genus Rattus is a member of the giant subfamily Murinae. There are several other murine genera that are sometimes considered part of Rattus. : Lenothrix, Anonymomys, Sundamys, Kadarsanomys, Diplothrix, Margaretamys, Lenomys, Komodomys, Palawanomys, Bunomys, Nesoromys, Stenomys, Taeromys, Paruromys, Abditomys, Tryphomys, Limnomys, Tarsomys, Bullimus, Apomys, Millardia, Srilankamys, Niviventer, Maxomys, Leopoldamys, Berylmys, Mastomys, Myomys, Praomys, Hylomyscus, Heimyscus, Stochomys, Dephomys, and Aethomys.

The genus Rattus proper contains 56 species. A subgeneric breakdown of the species has been proposed, but does not include all species. The five groups are:
  • norvegicus group
  • rattus group
  • Australian native rat species
  • New Guinea native rat species
  • xanthurus group


The following list is alphabetical.

Species of rats

See also



Further reading

  • Barnett, S. Anthony (2002) The Story of Rats: Their Impact on Us, and Our Impact on Them, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 202 pages, ISBN 1-86508-519-7 .
  • Hendrickson, R. (1983) More Cunning than Man: A Complete History of the Rat and its Role in Civilization, Kensington Books. ISBN 1-57566-393-7
  • Jahn, G. C., P. Cox, S. Mak, and N. Chhorn (1999) "Farmer participatory research on rat management in Cambodia", In G. Singleton, L. Hinds, H. Leirs and Zhibin Zhang [Eds.] Ecologically-based rodent managemen ACIAR, Canberra. Ch. 17, pp. 358-371. ISBN 1 86320 262 5
  • Leung LKP, Peter G. Cox, G. C. Jahn and Robert Nugent (2002) "Evaluating rodent management with Cambodian rice farmers", Cambodian Journal of Agriculture Vol. 5, pp. 21-26.
  • Matthews, I. (1898) 1st ed. Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher, after 25 Years’ Experience, Manchester: Friendly Societies Printing Co. ISBN 1-905124-64-3
  • Musser, G. G. and M. D. Carleton. 1993. "Family Muridae" in D. E. Wilson and D. M. Reeder eds. "Mammal Species of the World a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference", Smithsonianmarker Institution Press, Washington D.C.Pp. 501-755
  • Nowak, R. M. (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World Vol. 2. Johns Hopkins University Press, London.
  • Sullivan, Robert (2004) Rats: A Year with New Yorkmarker´s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Granta Books, London.
  • Sullivan, Robert (2005) Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 1-58234-477-9


References and notes

  1. Rats Capable Of Reflecting On Mental Processes
  2. Gibbs RA et al: Genome sequence of the Brown Norway rat yields insights into mammalian evolution.: Nature. 2004 Apr 1;428(6982):475-6.
  3. Otto, John Solomon; Augustus Marion Burns III. (December 1983) Black Folks, and Poor Buckras: Archeological Evidence of Slave and Overseer Living Conditions on an Antebellum Plantation. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2. pp. 185-200
  4. Hobson, Keith A.; Stephen Collier. (April 1984) Marine and Terrestrial Protein in Australian Aboriginal Diets. Current Anthropology, Vol. 25, No. 2. pp. 238-240
  5. Mills, J. P. (January 1952) The Mishmis of the Lohit Valley, Assam. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 82, No. 1. pp. 1-12
  6. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, La cocina de los mediterráneos, Ediciones B - Mexico
  7. Poor struggle as rat meat prices soar
  8. Musahar Hindus commercialise rat farming
  9. Leach, Helen. (February 2003) Did East Polynesians Have a Concept of Luxury Foods? World Archaeology, Vol. 34, No. 3, Luxury Foods. pp. 442-457.
  10. Kirch, Patrick V.; Sharyn Jones O'Day. (February 2003) New Archaeological Insights into Food and Status: A Case Study from Pre-Contact Hawaii. World Archaeology, Vol. 34, No. 3. pp. 484-497
  11. Behrens, Clifford A. (September 1986) Shipibo Food Categorization and Preference: Relationships between Indigenous and Western Dietary Concepts. American Anthropologist, Nathan New Series, Vol. 88, No. 3. pp. 647-658.
  12. Priest, Perry N. (October 1966) Provision for the Aged among the Sirionó Indians of Bolivia. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 68, No. 5. pp. 1245-1247


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