Tag Archives: rats

Episode 232: Almost Domesticated



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Thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” we’re going to learn about some animals that aren’t exactly domesticated but aren’t really wild either.

Further reading:

Memories of Ángela Loij

Mongolian horse and its person:

Mongolian horses:

OH MY GOSH HEART HEART HEART (photo from this website):

Dingos!

An artist’s rendition of the Fuejian dog (left) and a picture of the cuelpo (right):

The cuelpo, happy fox-like canid:

A very fancy rat:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Before we get started, and before I forget again to tell you about this, I’m planning a bonus Q&A episode for August. If you have any questions about the podcast, podcasting in general, me, or anything else, feel free to email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com, or otherwise contact me through social media!

A few episodes ago I mentioned in passing that the Australian dingo is a type of feral dog. It’s a more complicated situation than it sounds, so while I didn’t want to confuse the issue at the time, I kept thinking about it. Then I remembered that a listener emailed me a while back wanting to know more about how dogs were domesticated. We covered the topic pretty thoroughly back in episode 106, but I realized that there’s an aspect of domestication we didn’t cover in that episode. So thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” here’s an episode about a few animals that are only semi-domesticated.

Domestication, after all, isn’t a switch you can flip. It’s a process, and depending on the animal species and the circumstances, it can take a really long time. It’s not the same thing as taming an animal, either. An individual animal might become tame with the right treatment, but that doesn’t mean any individual of that species would react the same way. Domesticated animals show genetic changes that their wild counterparts don’t, changes that make them more likely to treat humans as friends instead of potential predators.

Generally, a fully domesticated animal requires some level of care from a human to survive, even if it’s just feral cats living near humans so they can find and kill rodents and avoid most predators. Feral domesticated cats don’t live the same way as their wild ancestors do. But sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds. While mustangs and other feral horse populations are considered domesticated animals, they live like wild animals and don’t need humans to survive. They mostly just need humans to leave them alone so they can thrive on their own. But if you capture a mustang that’s lived its whole life in the wild, with the right treatment it will eventually become tame, because its ancestors were bred for thousands of years to trust and depend on humans.

That brings us to our first semi-domesticated animal, the Mongolian horse. Yes, I’m still really into Mongolia and the Hu, and I’m excited to say I have tickets to see the Hu twice in concert this fall, if everything goes well. I’ve been listening to a program called the Voice of Mongolia in English, which is primarily a shortwave radio program but it’s also released as a podcast, and it talks about various aspects of Mongolian culture. Recently they had an episode about horses, so some of my information comes directly from that show.

Mongolia is a country in central Asia that’s mostly open steppes, which is a type of grassland. The soil isn’t right for most crops, but it’s great for horses. The people of Mongolia are traditionally nomadic, moving around from place to place to find grazing for their horses and other livestock, and about half of the current population still lives this way.

The Mongolian horse is a small, tough breed that probably hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years, possibly longer. It’s one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and the ancestor of many other horse breeds. For a long time people assumed it was the domesticated descendant of the wild Przewalski’s horse, but genetic testing has determined that domestic horses developed from a different wild horse species that’s extinct now. Genetic testing also showed that the Mongolian horse has the highest genetic diversity of any horse breed tested. It’s incredibly strong for its size, can gallop for miles without tiring, has strong hooves that never need trimming or shoeing, and seldom needs or receives veterinary care.

The main reason for all these traits is that Mongolian horses live like wild horses in most ways. They live loose, grazing as they like, and if they get too far away from their humans, the owners will go out to find them. But they’re still domesticated. Mare’s milk is an important part of the Mongolian diet, so the mares are used to being milked, and people use their horses to ride, carry packs, and pull carts. The stallions are frequently raced. At the same time, though, they’re not really pets. Mongols don’t give their horses names, but instead refer to them with a detailed description. The Voice of Mongolia in English says the Mongolian language has over 300 words to describe horses, while Wikipedia says it’s over 500. Either way, the terminology is so precise that everyone knows exactly which horse someone’s talking about, which if you think about it is more useful than a name.

The Australian dingo is in a similar situation. It’s considered a feral dog breed, but it doesn’t need people to survive. Most feral dogs throughout the world barely scrape by, eating garbage and rats and often dying of starvation or disease. Dingos live like wild animals and do just fine. But at the same time, they’re happy to hang out with people from time to time, acting as hunting companions who are neither dependent on humans nor frightened of them.

The dingo is a strong, tough, lean dog that stands around 22 inches tall at the shoulder, or 56 cm. It has flexible joints like the Norwegian lundehund we talked about in episode 230, which allows it to climb cliffs and fences and otherwise navigate difficult terrain. It’s usually a yellowy or ginger color, sometimes with small white markings, although some dingoes are black and tan. It can survive on very little water. It often hunts in packs and will hunt animals larger than it is, like the red kangaroo.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans, although we’re not sure when. Dingo fossils have been found dating to 3,500 years ago in western Australia, so it was at least that long ago. Genetic studies show that the modern dingo and the dingo of 3,500 years ago are pretty much identical. It also shows that it’s definitely a domestic dog, related to other dog breeds that were once common in Asia around 7,000 years ago, but which are rare now. It’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, which makes sense since New Guinea is so close to Australia. Until somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 years ago, New Guinea and Australia were connected when sea levels were low. Genetically the two dog breeds have been separated for about 8,300 years, which suggests that the dingo has been in Australia for at least that long.

Traditionally, Aboriginal Australians would take a dingo puppy from its den to keep as a pet, a hunting dog, or sometimes a herding animal. Sometimes the dingo would stick around when it was grown, but sometimes it would return to the wild. There’s a lot of controversy about breeding dingoes as pets, since it would be easy to breed the wild traits and behaviors out. Since the dingo has been killed as a livestock pest since white settlers arrived in Australia, in many places its numbers are in decline and there are worries that the wild dingo could go extinct. There are already problems with the dingo cross-breeding with other dog breeds. It’s a complicated topic, because while the dingo is a dog, it’s not precisely domesticated at this point but also not precisely a wild animal.

There used to be a domesticated canid in South America called the Fuegian dog, which was probably used as a hunting dog, especially to hunt otters. On cold nights, the dogs would wrap themselves around their people like living blankets so everyone stayed nice and warm.

The Fuegian dog wasn’t a dog, though. It was the domesticated form of the culpeo, also called the Andean fox. It’s actually not a fox although it looks a lot like one. It’s related to wolves and jackals, and it lives on the western slopes of the Andes Mountains all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia. It eats small animals like rodents and introduced European rabbits. While the culpeo is sandy or tawny in color with gray on its back and a black tip to its tail, the Fuegian dog was sometimes brown and white or all white. Reportedly the Fuegian dog was not very tame in general and was an aggressive animal compared to actual dogs. It would hunt on its own and basically acted like a wild animal that just happened to hang out with humans a lot, like the dingo does today.

The culpeo is doing just fine, but the Fuegian dog is extinct. The Fuegian dog was tamed by a Patagonian people called the Selk’nam [shelknam], or ‘Ona, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in such a remote part of South America that Europeans didn’t encounter them until the late 19th century when settlers showed up to raise sheep and rubber trees. We’ve talked about what happened to them in a previous episode, although I can’t remember which one. The Selk’nam didn’t understand the concept of livestock, so they figured those sheep were literally fair game. The sheep were living on their own hunting grounds, after all. The Selk’nam killed some of the sheep, and in retaliation, the European settlers murdered all the Selk’nam. I was going to tell you the name of the man who started the genocide, but I don’t think anyone should remember his name. It wasn’t just “oh, you killed my sheep, I’m going to shoot you because I’m mad,” either. There was a bounty on Selk’nam people, and that’s all I’m going to say because it’s just too awful and disturbing.

By 1930, only about 100 Selk’nam remained alive, and the very last member of the people, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. There’s a link in the show notes to a page with lots of information about her as a person.

In 1919 when Christian missionaries visited what was left of the Selk’nam, they discovered that all the dogs had been killed off by the people themselves because the dogs were too fierce and killed livestock. It sounds like a last, desperate attempt by the Selk’nam to stop the murder of their people by keeping their dogs from killing any sheep. But by then it was too late, and the genocide wasn’t really about the sheep in the end. It was racism and hatred. Remember that all people are equal, no matter what they look like or how they live. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Okay. Let’s finish with the story of another semi-domesticated animal, one that doesn’t involve people being terrible to each other. The kind of rat you can buy as a pet is considered semi-domesticated, and it hasn’t actually been domesticated for very long. The person mainly responsible for the pet rat is a man called Jack Black. Not the actor Jack Black; this was a different guy who lived in the mid-19th century.

Jack Black was a ratcatcher in London, England who said he was the Queen’s official rat-catcher even though he wasn’t. He was definitely an extravagant character who always wore what he called his uniform, which included a big leather sash over one shoulder decorated with rats made of iron, a crown, and the initials V.R. for Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria. He told people the queen herself gave him the sash, but actually his wife made it for him. Black also carried a big domed cage with him to hold the rats he caught.

He mainly caught rats to sell to people who were training their dogs to kill rats, which was also a popular thing to watch. I mean, that doesn’t sound like any fun to me but this was before video games were invented. Occasionally, though, Black would catch a rat that had interesting markings or that was an unusual color. These rats he would keep, tame, and breed to produce more rats with different colors and patterns. He sold the tame, pretty young rats to people as pets. He especially liked white rats, which made popular pets then and are still popular today.

Pet rats, usually called fancy rats, are a subspecies of the brown rat, or Norway rat, which we talked about in episode 143. We also talked about Jack Black briefly in that episode, but at the time I didn’t realize he wasn’t really a royal rat catcher. By 1900 fancy rats were popular pets and remain so today, and are becoming more and more domesticated. If they’re not fully domesticated they’re well on their way, all thanks to a guy who thought rats were neat.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 143: Rats, Giant Rats, and Rat Kings



It’s almost Halloween!! We’ve got a great episode this week about rats–ordinary rats, giant rats, and the strange phenomenon called the rat king.

Speaking of bonus episodes, I’ve unlocked a few for anyone to listen to. Just click through and listen in your browser, no login required:

Spooky Animals Stories

Irrawaddy dolphins and Dracula ants

The Soay Island Sea Monster

Further viewing:

A squirrel king video (the squirrels were captured and freed by a veterinarian later)

A typical brown rat, a la Ratatouille:

A typical black rat:

A typical fancy (aka domesticated) rat:

A giant pouched rat heading to work to sniff out landmines:

Two rat kings (preserved):

An X-ray of a rat king’s tails (the arrows show places where the tails are fractured):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s finally the Halloween episode! I hope you all have your costumes ready to go! This week we’re going to learn about an animal sometimes associated with Halloween, the rat, including some mystery rats.

But first, my yearly housekeeping and promo-ing! You can still pick up a copy of my fantasy adventure book Skytown, available from Fox Spirit Books. I’ll put a link in the show notes. It has some adult language but is otherwise suitable for younger teens through adults. I’m also working on a nonfiction book associated with Strange Animals Podcast, but we’ll see how that goes.

If you want to support the show financially, I am always happy to take your money. We’ve got a Ko-fi account where you can tip me the cost of a coffee, or more, and we’ve also got a Patreon account if you want to set up recurring donations and get bonus episodes in exchange, as well as other perks. There are links to both in the show notes and on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. Also on the website we’ve got two pages now that list what animals we’ve covered so far. One page is for everything, the other is just for cryptids for those of you who are just here for the mystery animals.

Speaking of Patreon bonus episodes, I’ve unlocked a few episodes so that anyone can listen to them. They won’t show up in your feed, but there are links in the show notes and you can just click on the link and listen in your browser. You don’t need a Patreon login or anything. This time I’ve unlocked some fun ones, including an episode about animal ghosts from last Halloween.

Now, on to the rats.

The presence of rats is usually considered bad luck, undoubtedly because rats evolved to take advantage of humans’ habit of storing grain for later. If rats ate the grain, humans and their livestock could starve. But rats are also considered bad omens or evil when they’re just going about their lives, being rats.

The rat is a rodent that resembles a big mouse, not surprising since they’re closely related. There are lots of rat species and subspecies, but the most well known are the black rat and brown rat. These are the ones most likely to live in cities and houses, especially the brown rat. The brown rat is also sometimes called the Norway rat even though it’s originally from Asia.

The brown rat is a relatively large rodent, up to about a foot long, or 30 cm, with a tail that’s nearly as long. The black rat is a little smaller and less bulky, with larger eyes and ears, and has a tail that’s longer than its body. Male rats are usually larger and heavier than females. A rat’s tail is bare of fur and has thin skin, and if a predator grabs it by the tail it can shed the skin of the tail, called degloving. The skin will grow back, but until it does the tail is prone to infection. That’s one of the reasons why you should never pick up a pet rat by the tail. Also, picking a rat up by the tail can injure it.

The domesticated rat, also called the fancy rat, is descended from the brown rat. Rat catchers, especially a man named Jack Black, whose title was Royal Rat Catcher and who lived in the mid-19th century, kept interestingly patterned or colored rats he caught in his job. At the turn of the 20th century, fancy mice were a popular pet in Europe, and in 1901 a woman named Mary Douglas suggested the UK group called the National Mouse Club also accept rats. I don’t know about you, but I would totally join the National Mouse Club just for the name. It’s actually still around today, in fact, and I just looked and it costs money to join, so never mind. It’s not like I have any pet mice anyway. Domesticated rats are intelligent, clean pets, and friendly if they’re properly socialized. Rats do leave scent trails for other rats by releasing small amounts of urine as they move around, though, so be aware of this before you let your pet rat run around the house.

The rat has good hearing, smell, and sense of touch, with lots of sensitive whiskers to help it find its way even in the dark. Many of the sounds it makes are in the ultrasonic range so aren’t audible to human ears, including laughter. That’s right, rats laugh. It’s more of an ultrasonic chirping sound, but it occurs when rats are playing, and when a pet rat is tickled by its owner. Young rats laugh more than old rats.

This is what a rat laugh sounds like, slowed down so it’s audible to human ears.

[rat laughing/chirping]

The rat can also swim well, dig well, and shows signs of being surprisingly intelligent. It’s an omnivore that will eat anything it can find or catch. It will kill and eat small animals or sometimes even larger animals like ducks. Some rat populations have learned to dive for mollusks and catch fish.

Rats are social animals and live in large groups, usually in burrows with extensive tunnel systems. In cities, instead of digging burrows rats will live in sewers, alleys, and buildings. Rats go where people go, and they live where people live. While the rat is mostly nocturnal, it’s not unusual to see a rat during the day too.

Rats do carry diseases which they can spread to humans and other animals through their urine and feces, through bites, or through fleas or mites. You’ve probably heard that rats carry a type of flea that spreads the black death, which killed millions of people throughout the 14th century and later. Researchers think that the black death was an especially dangerous version of the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague is actually still around, but these days it’s rare, usually not as dangerous as the version of the disease spread in the middle ages, and can be cured with modern medicine. Humans aren’t the only animals that can catch the plague, by the way. So can cats, dogs, and the rats themselves.

So a rat can grow to about a foot long not counting the tail, or 30 cm. Even a big rat doesn’t weigh more than about two pounds, or a little under a kilogram. But what about giant rats? Or, you might say, rodents of unusual size.

Occasionally someone reports seeing or killing a rat twice the normal size or more, but while you can find pictures of giant dead rats online, it’s really easy to fake that kind of picture. Some are obviously examples of forced perspective, where the rat looks big because it’s actually quite close to the camera, some are plain old photoshopped, and some aren’t actually rats at all.

There are some rodents that look a lot like regular old rats but are much larger. Most are rare or not well known outside of its native habitat, like the Sumatran giant rat that grows up to two feet long, or about 61 cm, not counting its tail. It’s brown with longer fur than the actual brown rat, and it lives in parts of southeastern Asia, but it’s only distantly related to the rat.

The African giant pouched rat is also only distantly related to the actual rat although it looks quite similar. Unlike rats, but like some other rodents, it has cheek pouches that it uses to carry food. It’s bigger than the brown rat, up to about a foot and a half long not counting the tail. or 45 cm, and until 2003 it was a popular exotic pet in the United States. But in 2003, some giant pouched rats imported to the midwest from Africa spread a disease called monkey pox to other animals that were then all sold as pets, especially prairie dogs. In the next five weeks 71 people were infected with the disease. Fortunately no one died, but monkey pox is related to smallpox and can be deadly to humans. As a result of the outbreak, the United States no longer allows any rodent to be imported from Africa.

Also in 2003, the remake of a horror movie about a man named Willard and his rats was released. The rat named Ben was played by a giant pouched rat. I have not seen the movie because I’m a wimp about horror movies, but if you like them and are, you know, a grown-up type person, apparently that was a pretty good one. The original movie was released in 1971 with a sequel in 1972, and all I know about it is that Michael Jackson sang the theme song, which is probably the only song I know that’s about a rat. It’s a pretty song.

The giant pouched rat is sometimes trained to detect landmines, since it has a good sense of smell and isn’t heavy enough to set off the landmines. The problem is that the giant pouched rat doesn’t actually breed well in captivity, so breeding pouched rats that are especially tame and good at detecting explosives is proving to be difficult. Researchers aren’t even sure what causes the females to come into season so that they can have babies. In other rodents, the release of certain hormones controls this cycle, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in giant pouched rats.

As if the bomb-sniffing and acting skills weren’t enough, the giant pouched rat has also been trained to detect tuberculosis in children. The rat does this by sniffing samples of spit taken from children, and a trained rat is so good at detecting the infection that it’s actually 68% more accurate than the standard medical test.

Not to be outdone, researchers in North America are working on ways to train brown rats as search and rescue animals for areas where search and rescue dogs can’t enter.

We got a little off-topic there but you have to admit, the giant pouched rat is a pretty neat rodent, even if it’s not actually part of the rat family.

Another rodent once thought to be a type of rat was a mystery for centuries. In 1503 the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci reached Brazil, and while he was there he visited the volcanic island Fernando de Noronha and wrote about it later. One of the things he mentioned was that the island was home to very large rats.

Since Vespucci was the first European ever to visit the island, and no one from anywhere in the world was living on it at the time, the rats he saw can’t have been the rats he was used to. That would have been the black rat, since the brown rat hadn’t spread throughout Europe yet. It did so later, outcompeting the black rat in most environments. But in 1503, the black rat was the one Vespucci would have known, and the rats he saw on the island were bigger.

Other explorers and sailors visited the island in the years after 1503, and by 1888 when biologists came looking for the very big rat, all they found were the descendants of black rats brought there by ships.

Then, in 1973 paleontologists from Brazil and the United States visited the island to see what had once lived there. And they found remains of the very large rat. It turns out that the rat wasn’t actually a rat, although it was a rodent. And while it was larger and heavier than the black rat, it wasn’t enormous. It was about the size of a typical brown rat, in fact. Ironically, it was probably driven to extinction by the ship rats that colonized the island soon after Vespucci visited.

Vespucci’s rat has been named Noronhomys vespuccii and was given its own genus. Reseachers think that its ancestor might have been semiaquatic like some rodents that still live in South America and that are related to Vespucci’s rat. Rodents that were already in the water would have been occasionally swept out to sea and floated or swam to the island. But once a population of the rodents was established on the island, they evolved to be exclusively terrestrial.

But let’s get back to actual rats. A lot of people are afraid of rats, and it’s true that a cornered rat will bite to defend itself. Rats still carry diseases too. As a result, there are lots of superstitions about rats. For instance, according to folklore than goes back almost two thousand years, the best way to get rid of rats is to write the rats a polite letter requesting that they leave. Fold it up carefully and slide it into the rat’s hole. I am pretty sure that one doesn’t work.

Rats are supposed to be able to foretell misfortune and death. If a rat chews up someone’s clothes or belongings, that person is supposedly going to die soon. If you see rats leaving a ship, it’s an omen that the ship is going to sink. I’ve been reading about superstitions, and it’s amazing how many animals are supposed to foretell death and bad luck. It’s almost like people are trying to blame an animal for random events.

Finally, it wouldn’t be Halloween without something spooky, weird, or gross, or better yet, all three. So let’s learn about something called the rat king.

A rat king isn’t one animal but a group of rats joined together by their tails. This sounds like something out of folklore but it’s actually a real occurrence, although it’s rare. The oldest report known dates to 1564, but specimens are occasionally uncovered even today. All reliable reports of rat kings are of black rats. The black rat has a long, thin, flexible tail that it uses to help it climb.

Not much is known about how rat kings form, but the most widely accepted suggestion is that a group of rats huddling together for warmth get their tails tangled together without realizing it. When each rat tries to separate itself from the group by pulling, the knot tightens. Eventually the rats are permanently stuck together.

It seems reasonable to think that a bunch of rats stuck together by their tails wouldn’t survive long. They’d starve to death or kill each other trying to get free. But a rat king made up of seven rats found in the Netherlands in 1963 was examined and even X-rayed to learn more about it, and where the tails were intertwined there was some evidence of calluses forming. This suggests the rats may have survived for some time.

Most rat kings are made up of young rats, possibly siblings sharing a nest. It’s possible the mother of the 1963 rat king fed them and kept them alive until they were discovered by a farmer, who killed them.

Rats aren’t the only animals found with their tails knotted together. It happens to squirrels occasionally too. If you check the show notes, I’ve included a link to a video of a squirrel king. In the case of squirrels, pine sap and nesting material can glue or tangle the tails of young squirrels together, and we have not just video evidence from 2013 and 2018, but the evidence of veterinarians who managed to separate the squirrels in both cases so they wouldn’t die.

So the rat king sounds horrifying and kind of is, but it’s also sad and not really spooky at all. It’s funny how often understanding something that sounds scary makes you realize it’s not actually all that scary after all. People and rats may not always get along, since rats are very interested in eating food people want to keep for ourselves. But rats laugh, so they can’t be all bad.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening, and happy Halloween!