For New York rats, a question of sink or swim

November 1, 2012 4:14 am


Cars piled on top of each other at the entrance to a garage on South Willliam Street in Lower Manhattan/AFP
NEW YORK, Nov 1 – As Hurricane Sandy pushed floodwater through New York’s streets and into its subways, many wondered how the city’s infamous rat population would fare – sink or swim?

For some, the deluge that accompanied Sandy raised fears of a “ratpocalypse,” with the city’s least glamorous residents crawling in their thousands up out of their subterranean habitats and into the streets.

Others pondered the possibility of a grim “rat soup,” imagining dozens of the rodents drowned and floating along on the tide of water that swept into the city’s subway stations.

No one knows just how many rats there are in the city, with experts at odds over the accuracy of one common estimate suggesting there is at least one rat for each of New York City’s eight million human residents.

And Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, said it was similarly difficult to predict what had happened to the rodents.

“Rats tend to inhabit very low-lying areas that are most subject to this intense flooding. So some rats will be killed, they’ll be drowned in the water,” he told AFP.

“But I would expect that relatively few will be killed by a flood of this nature, because as quickly as the floods can rise, the rats can rise. They can swim quite proficiently and climb and get up and out of harm’s way.”

While a rare fan of the rat, at least as a research subject, Ostfeld pointed out that the rodents can carry a slew of unsavory ailments, including leptospirosis and salmonella.

Those rats that make it up to the surface “could pose a threat to us in new parts of the city where they haven’t been,” he warned.

In the short term, Ostfeld predicted, survivor rats will be looking for new homes, trying to get by in a new environment and reestablish a social order.

“But once these new social structures are maintained, are formed, I would expect the rats to begin breeding again,” he said.

“And if there’s a massive amount of new food as a result of the storm… that could constitute a new food resource for rats and we could see a population increase.”

But Bora Zivkovic, a behavioral biologist and editor at Scientific American, predicted the storm might well have drowned a portion of the city’s rodent dwellers.

“Rats, especially the pups, in the areas most quickly flooded or without good easy exits to the surface would have drowned,” he said in an email.

Still, those that did make it overground would be feasting.

Part 1 | Part 2

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