The Rat King: On the Fascinations (and Revulsions) of Rattus

In what he calls “an Experiment in Controlled Digression,” Mark Dery touches on xenogastronomy, ortolan, Edible Dormouse, Victor Hugo’s fondness for rat pâté, rat-baiting as a betting sport in Victorian times, the rat as New York’s unofficial mascot, Luis Buñuel’s pet rat, scientific research into such pressing questions as whether rats laugh, and whether rats will inherit the Earth as a result of climate change, Dracula’s dominion over rats, and of course the (cryptozoological myth? well-documented phenomenon?) of the Rat King.

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Who wants a cruise ship that might be filled with possibly diseased rats?

Perhaps you've heard of the Russian cruise ship that was abandoned in the North Atlantic and is now, possibly, floating towards a landfall in England? (Or, it might have sunk a while ago. Nobody is really sure.) Anyway, here's a fun fact: According to maritime law, if you can find the thing and take control of her (which may, or may not, involve fighting off armies of cannibal rats) then you own her.

Michael Jackson loved rodents

Here is Michael Jackson, age 14, singing "Ben" at the Oscars in 1973. Of course, "Ben" was the theme song of a horror film with the same name. This clip was shown in court on Friday during the trial in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Michael Jackson's three children and his mother Katherine against AEG Live. From CNN:

"He liked that song because he liked the rats," his mother said.

She then told a story about discovering her son had a mouse in his pocket during dinner at a Beverly Hills restaurant. "I was very upset with him."

"Michael Jackson's mom faces cross examination in death trial"

The men who tickle rats

Apparently, if you tickle a rat it will respond with vocalizations that scientists have good reason to interpret as happy ones. Basically, it's the rat equivalent of laughter, only at ultrasonic frequencies that the human ear can't detect on its own. What's more, tickling rats on a regular basis appears to reduce the negative effects of stress in their lives. Scicurious' write up of this research includes the amazing quote: "For the “tickling treatment”, rats were tickled once daily, in two sessions of two minutes each, for two weeks." Also, there is video of this.

Rat brains linked in first ever brain-to-brain interface

"Scientists have connected the brains of lab rats, allowing one to communicate directly to another via cables. The wired brain implants allowed sensory and motor signals to be sent from one rat to another, creating the first ever brain-to-brain interface." [Jen Whyntie at the BBC]

Abandoned Russian cruise ship drifts toward Europe

Dina Spector reports on the Lyubivy Orlova, a Russian cruise ship adrift in the North Atlantic. It snapped free of towing cables while en-route from Canada to new owners in the Caribbean, and for various reasons no-one is taking responsibility. It, and its suspected payload of rats, is now just 1300 miles off the Irish coast. [BI]

Lab rats with brain implants sense invisible infrared light

Duke University researchers implanted lab rats with a device enabling them to perceive invisible infrared light. Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues jacked a head-mounted infrared sensor into the rat's brain. It's wired into a region of the brain that processes touch, providing the rodents with a "sixth sense" for infrared. They published their research in the science journal Nature Communications. The possibilities aren't limited to infrared spectrum either. "We could create devices sensitive to any physical energy," Nicolelis says. "It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound. We chose infrared initially because it didn't interfere with our electrophysiological recordings." The technology could someday lead to improved neuroprosthetics to help blind people see.

"Neuroprosthesis Gives Rats the Ability to 'Touch' Infrared Light" (Nicolelis Lab)

"Lab rats 'acquire sixth sense'" (BBC News)

Rats and Rat Riddance

Ratssss From Edward Howe Forbush's Rats And Rat Riddance (1914):
At the Farm and Trade School on Thompson's Island, where the boy pupils are taught to kill rats, as all boys should be, there is a henhouse built with a cement foundation, but it has an earth floor and no foundation wall on the south side; therefore it is not rat-proof. The wooden floor of the main house is raised about three feet above the earth, leaving a space below it for a shelter for geese. Here the rats have burrowed in the earth, and as it was considered unsafe to use carbon bisulphide there on account of the fire danger, water was suggested. Two lines of common garden hose were attached to a near-by hydrant, the ends inserted into rat holes and the water turned on. All rat holes leading from the henpens to the outer world were closed with earth, and several boys were provided with sticks, to the end of each of which a piece of hose two feet long had been attached. A fox terrier was introduced into the henpens, and in about half an hour the rat war began. As the half-drowned rats came out of their holes somewhat dazed they were struck by side swings of the hose sticks, which knocked them off their feet, to be killed by other blows. If one escaped into the henpens, boy or dog killed it. This operation was repeated later from time to time. Four successive battles several weeks apart yielded 152 rats from under and about this henhouse, and no doubt many young rats were drowned in their nests.
"Rats And Rat Riddance" (Google Books, via Weird Universe)

Won't somebody think of the rats?

I'm sure you've all been very concerned, worrying about the impact Hurricane Sandy had on New York City's rat population. The good news: Rats can swim and, while many rats likely died during the storm, there are probably still plenty of them alive. The really interesting news: Nobody actually knows how many rats live in New York City. There could be as many as 32 million.

Of GM corn and rat tumors: Why peer reviewed doesn't mean "accurate"

UPDATE: After you read this story, make sure you check out the follow up piece. Editors at Embargo Watch have found evidence that The Sustainable Food Trust manipulated the media to prevent public criticism of this paper.

Yesterday, in an aside to a post criticizing an astroturf political campaign in California, Mark mentioned a new study that supposedly found GM corn causes tumors in rats. As Mark said in an update to that post, this study is severely flawed, but I wanted to follow-up on that with some discussion about why it's flawed.

After all, the study was peer-reviewed, right? Doesn't that mean we can trust it?

Here's the thing. Peer review is not perfect. It's not a panacea. It's simply the basic level of due diligence. By submitting work for peer review, a scientist has allowed people outside her own team to critique her work. And the journal might require some changes to the paper based on the critique — anything from edits for clarity to requesting that the scientist perform another experiment in a different way. If a paper hasn't gone through peer review, you should be more skeptical of it. Avoiding peer review means that the researcher decided to show the public her results before allowing those results to be critiqued by independent experts.

But, at the same time, just because something has gone through peer review doesn't mean it's been certified to be accurate. It just means that roughly three other experts have looked at the paper before publication. There's still a lot of room for things to go wrong. Peer review is like the bouncer at the door. The bouncer doesn't guarantee that every person in the bar would be a good person for you to date. Even if a paper gets through, you still have to think about it critically and evaluate it on its own merits. This recent paper on GM corn and rat tumors is an excellent example of that ...

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