Rats, the World's Varmint for 160 Million Years

Rats are vermin, pests, destructive varmints — and according to researchers, they've been around for 160 million years in some form.

Rats, the World's Varmint for 160 Million Years

A brown rat At Fairlands Valley Park in Stevenage England. (Photo: Anemone Projectors/Wikipedia)

Rats occupy a special place in society, from trash dumps to subways and horror movies to gang codes of honor.

What is it about the rat? Appearance? Their long tail, pink nose and ears, and beady eyes probably don't help. Skulking around at night and being cast as creepy or frightful movie characters also doesn't help. The fact they're opportunistic diners, as seen recently on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, doesn't lend much grace to their status, either. 

In the mob, whether real life or on the silver screen, the code of omerta meant never being a rat. You didn't squeal, tattle, tell on anyone or spill the beans. No one wanted to be a rat and no one liked a rat. If you ratted out anyone you were the lowest of the low. Jimmy laid it out to Henry in this scene from Goodfellas:

Those who remember country comedian Jerry Clower know that rat-killing was an important part of life in Amite County, Mississippi. Clower's tales are sprinkled with stories of killing rats in the corn cribs, and neighbor Uncle Versie Ledbetter was "the head rat-killer in our community." That was high status, likely up there with being one of the top 'coon hunters among your peers.

Big cities around the world have problems with rats, of course, from the plague in Europe to today where while reviled they're celebrated. In New York City you have scurry-to-work Coffee Rat, the gourmand Pizza Rat, Brooklyn's hipster Avocado Rat and the hearty McMuffin Rat. These rats need to head across the pond hang out with Remy, star of the kitchen and big screen in Ratatouille.

Rats can carry and transmit dozens of diseases including hantavirus and tularemia. They can slip into spaces a half-inch wide, which is one reason they're so doggone difficult to eliminate. We have a chipmunk in our yard and while it's not the same as a rat, it's amazing to see them scamper and disappear into a small hole or crack. Rats are the same way.

Of course, it's not cool to see rats hanging around restaurants or food service facilities. Similar to coyotes, though, they're not going anywhere and have a purpose as cleanup specialists. That doesn't make them great or grand, but it is what it is.

Rat History

Stories about rats aren't uncommon in the New York Post, which occasionally has stories about them along with interesting headlines. The Post's headlines must fit a tabloid format so we get doozies like this one: Starving rats are resorting to war and cannibalism to survive coronavirus lockdown.

Catchy, eh?

In the story, though, was a mention about rats having been on earth for 160 million years. That led to a search about rats and this 2013 account of a Chinese super-rat. According to the journal Science, Rugosodon eurasiaticus was a tree-climbing, plant-eating rodent that also ate animals if need be thanks to sharp teeth. Researchers believe the animal lived in the Jurassic Period for about 100 million years, adapting and evolving before dying out. Modern rodents are believed to be a desendant.

"Some could jump, some could burrow, others could climb trees and many more lived on the ground," said co-author Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago. "The tree-climbing multituberculates and the jumping multituberculates had the most interesting ankle bones, capable of 'hyper-back-rotation' of the hind feet."

Were those Rugosodon animals the forefathers of rats? Maybe they were dinousaur-era raccoons or opossums. Who knows for sure? It's an interesting thought, though, and I have no doubt there were scavenging, opportunistic rat-like animals millions of years ago.

We're familiar with the brown rat, but worldwide there are different species and sizes. Tales are routinely debunked about rats growing in size, similar to how a familiar alligator may gain a foot every year or a feral hog picks up another 30-50 pounds. Some rats or rat-like cousins can be relatively large, though, including the 8-pound Sumatran bamboo rat. Researchers believe most New York City rats are average, though some may grow to a pound or more.

Rat-like cousins such as the plant-eating nutria or capybara are much larger. Nutria are common in marshes of Louisiana and Texas, and are spreading throughout the United States. 

Rat Killing

Few people today have corn cribs like those of Jerry Clower's tales. You're not going to be running around city streets hunting rats, and chances aren't good you'll get access to a city dump. Liability and lawsuits and all that kind of thing.

But, if you're deadset on knocking out a few common rats here are some suggestions. Make sure you have permission, legal access and are safe.

Gamo's Swarm Maxxim has a 10-shot rotary magazine so you can shoot, break the barrel to reload and shoot again. It's fast, accurate and a ton of fun for varmits. Get the scope dialed in, have extra magazines loaded to easily pop in, and you'll be good to go.

— If you're in a field or have safe opportunities, a .22 Short would plunk a rat pretty handily. Pick up a Henry Classic Lever Action .22 and get after it. The rifle accepts 15 rounds of .22 Long Rifle, 17 rounds of .22 Long or up to 21 rounds of .22 Short.

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