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Conservation status: Least concern (LR/lc)
| Rattus norvegicus|
| Brown Rat range|
Brown Rat range
The brown rat, common rat, Norway rat, Norwegian rat or wharf rat (Rattus norvegicus) is one of the best-known and common rats, and also one of the largest. It is not known for certain why it is named Rattus norvegicus (Norwegian rat) as it did not originate in Norway, but John Berkenhout, the author of the 1769 book "Outlines of the Natural History of Great Britain", is most likely responsible for the misnomer. Berkenhout gave the brown rat the binomial name Rattus norvegicus believing that the rat had migrated to England from Norwegian ships in 1728, although no brown rat had entered Norway at that time, instead coming from Denmark. Thought to have originated in northern China, this rodent has now spread to all continents (except Antarctica) and is the dominant rat in [urope and much of North America. It lives wherever humans live, particularly in urban areas. Selective breeding of Rattus norvegicus has produced the laboratory rat, an important model organism in biological research, as well as pet rats.
The fur is coarse and usually brown or dark grey, the underparts are lighter grey or brown. The length can be up to 25 cm (10 in.), with the tail a further 25 cm (the same as the body length). Adult body weight averages 350 g in males and about 250 g in females, but a very large individual can reach 500 g. Rats weighing over a kilogram are exceptional, and stories of rats as big as cats are exaggerations, or misidentifications of other rodents such as the coypu and muskrat. Brown rats have acute hearing and are sensitive to ultrasound, and also possess a very highly developed olfactory sense. Their average heart rate is 300 to 400 beats per minute, with a respiratory rate of around 100 per minute. Their vision is poor and they are unable to detect colour and are blind to long-wave light.
Food, habitat and behavior
The brown rat is a true omnivore and will consume almost anything, but with cereals forming a substantial part of the diet. Martin Schein, founder of the Animal Behavior Society in 1964, studied the diet of brown rats and came to the conclusion in his paper "A Preliminary Analysis of Garbage as Food for the Norway Rat" that the most-liked food of brown rats was (in order) scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and cooked corn kernels. Their least-liked food was raw beets, peaches, and raw celery. They are usually active at night and are good swimmers, both on the surface and underwater, but (unlike the related Black rat Rattus rattus) are poor climbers. They dig well, and often excavate extensive burrow systems. A 2007 study found rats to possess metacognition, a mental ability previously only found in humans and some primates.
It is common for rats to groom each other and sleep together. As with dogs, rats create a social hierarchy, and each rat has its own place in the pack. Rats are said to establish an order of hierarchy and so one rat will be dominant over another one. Groups of rats tend to "play fight", which can involve any combination of jumping, chasing, tumbling, and boxing. Play fighting involves rats going for each other's necks, while serious fighting involves strikes at the others' back ends.
The brown rat can breed throughout the year if conditions are suitable, a female producing up to five litters a year. The gestation period is only 1-2 months and litters can number up to fourteen, although seven is common. The maximum life span is up to three years, although most barely manage one. A yearly mortality rate of 95% is estimated, with predators and interspecific conflict as major causes. Brown rats live in large hierarchical groups, either in burrows or subsurface places such as sewers and cellars. When food is in short supply, the rats lower in social order are the first to die. If a large fraction of a rat population is exterminated, the remaining rats will increase their reproductive rate, and quickly restore the old population level.
Rats live wherever people live. It is often said that there are as many rats in cities as people, but this varies from area to area depending on climate, etc. It is probable that New York City (with a severe winter climate), for instance, has only 250,000 rats, not eight million. However, the UK official National Rodent Survey[How to reference and link to summary or text] found a 2003 UK population of 60 million brown rats, about equal to the UK human population; winters in Britain are much warmer, making rat survival higher. Brown rats in cities tend not to wander extensively, often staying within 20 meters (65 ft) of their nest if a suitable concentrated food supply is available, but they will range more widely where food availability is lower.
The only way to truly combat the rat problem is reduce the food supply, i.e., garbage left out on the street. Rats have evolved a protective mechanism for avoiding rodenticides and other poisons. Despite their omnivorous habits, they cautiously eat new things and will only take small quantities when encountering them. In addition, their young are averse to eating any new substance that was not first safely imbibed through the mother's milk. Hence, any efforts to use a particular poison to control their growth will result in the natural selection of those who will not imbibe the same poison.
Brown rats in science
- Main article: Laboratory rat
In 1895, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts (United States) 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).
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).
Selective breeding of the brown rat has produced the albino laboratory rat. Like mice, these rats are frequently subjects of medical, psychological and other biological experiments and constitute an important model organism. This is because they grow quickly to sexual maturity and are easy to keep and to breed in captivity. When modern biologists refer to "rats", they almost always mean Rattus norvegicus.
Scientists have bred many strains or "lines" of rats specifically for experimentation. Most are derived from the albino Wistar rat, which is still widely used. Other popular strains are the Sprague-Dawley, Fischer 344 and Holtzman albino strains, and the Long-Evans, and (in the UK) Lister black hooded rats. Inbred strains are also available but are not as commonly used as inbred mice. Generally rat lines are not transgenic because the easy techniques of genetic transformation that work in mice do not work for rats. This has disadvantaged many investigators, who regard many aspects of behavior and physiology in rats as more relevant to humans and easier to observe than in mice and who wish to trace their observations to underlying genes. As a result, many have been forced to study questions in mice that might be better pursued in rats. In October 2003, however, researchers succeeded in cloning two laboratory rats by the problematic technique of nuclear transfer. So rats may begin to see more use as genetic research subjects. Much of the genome of Rattus norvegicus has been sequenced.
Brown rats as pets
- Main article: Fancy rat
The brown rat, along with the black rat to a lesser degree, is kept as a pet in many parts of the world. Australia, England, and the United States are just a few of the countries that have formed fancy rat associations similar in nature to the American Kennel Club, establishing standards, orchestrating events, and promoting responsible pet ownership.
- Rat Behaviour and Biology
- Nature: Rat Genome
- Rat Genome Database
- Waarneming.nl Pictures, sightings and distribution maps of brown rats in the Netherlands.
- Rats, by Robert Sullivan
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