Imagine Thousands of Rats Killing You


A couple of nights ago I saw a NOVA show about rats. It was terrifying. Here’s why:

Okay. That may be a bit dramatized, but I think it gets the gist of the conflict and that stakes involved.

Every 48 years Black Rats flood across rice fields in northeastern India devouring all food in sight resulting in famines and deaths. This is because every 48 years a certain specie of bamboo flowers and drops fruits. The rats, encouraged by an overabundance of food, start breeding like it’s the end of the world. A single female can give birth to 200 babies in half a year. Octomom, eat your heart out.

When the bamboo fruits are gone, the rats turn to rice grown by Indian subsistence farmers. This cyclical ecological phenomenon is called Mautam. In 1958 the resulting famine killed several hundred people. You can watch the entire NOVA episode here. The story follows one scientist’s efforts to discover the times of rat reproduction waves by tracking footprint frequencies and setting traps. I wonder if there are better ways to track and quantify these reproduction pulses to better inform the subsistence farmers about when to plant and harvest their crops. With the right information and planning, the farmers should be able to time when to plant (e.g. X days after the first bamboo flowering) and when to sow (e.g. when rat trap frequencies are Y). Add in a government safety net for unlucky villages and the farmers should do much better in the future.