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Oh Rats! New Research Into Habits of NY’s Hardiest Residents

Pet rats on a wooden background

When a 14-second clip of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down a flight of subway stairs went viral, the world got a glimpse at the exploits of some of New York’s hardiest residents: urban rats.

But Pizza Rat aside, studying the behavior of city rats – and finding solid clues to eradicating them – has vexed scientists and city officials alike for almost 400 years.

Now, a team of Hofstra University researchers has found a new way to study rat behavior that could lead to a deeper understanding of their movements, more accurate population estimates, and ultimately more effective methods of controlling their numbers. Their research was published in the latest issue of the journal  Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Hofstra Biology Professor Ron Sarno, PhD, and Dr. Michael Parsons, PhD, a scholar-in-residence at Hofstra, used remote-sensing technology combined with pheromone attractants, to investigate the movements and biology of city rats.

They worked with rodent expert Michael Deutsch of Arrow Pest Control of Lynbrook, N.Y., conducting their research at a New York metro area recycling facility.

“City rats are clever, they are tenacious and they are largely a mystery to us,” Parsons said. Rats are difficult to study in the urban environment because they spend the majority of their time hidden beneath the city infrastructure. The techniques used in this study, the researchers say, helped them get around that challenge.

The Hofstra scientists implanted rats with radio frequency identification chips to monitor their habits and behavior
The Hofstra scientists implanted rats with radio frequency identification chips to monitor their habits and behavior

“Wild rats are among the least understood animals in urban environments,” Sarno said. “Yet as predators of native species, agents of food spoilage and infrastructure damage and disease reservoirs for humans, they are among the most important in the urban environment.”

New York City’s attempts to conquer the rat population have inspired horror movies, stand-up comics and a raft of municipal programs, including the designation of a ‘rat czar’ in the 1990s. Last year, Mayor Bill DeBlasio pledged $3 million for the latest war on rats.

“If we do not understand rats a little better, then we cannot begin to address the need for better control mechanisms, and to reduce their contact with humans, in city and suburb,” said Larry Levy, Executive Dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra, which is providing funding to continue the research. “This is important work that we hope to see continue in our inner-ring suburbs.”

The Hofstra scientists captured and implanted rats with radio frequency identification chips. A remote sensor was then treated with pheromones, luring the rats to visit the sensor up to 30 times per day, allowing for substantial opportunity to film the rodents’ behavior, weigh them and collect fluids and DNA samples.

“Our major finding so far,” Parsons said, “was the discovery of ways to safely, and humanely, overcome the primary barriers that are holding back urban rat ecological studies.”

 

 

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