Rats' nests are rich with unrecorded history and urgent scientific data

Pack rats, aka woodrats, build their nests, called middens, from plant debris, rocks, animal parts, paper, and almost any other bits of detritus nearby. Frequently, they urinate on their middens. The urine crystalizes and encases the nest material, preserving it for as long as 50,000 years by some estimates. For paleobotanists, middens are a great source of information about how flora has changed over time. Zoologists study the animal remains and poop. And climatologists analyze the material for insight into past climates, even the most recent ice age that ended more than 11,000 years ago. In Smithsonian, Sadie Witkowski digs into the topic, including a story about what historians learned excavating rats' nests in the walls of the 1808 Charleston, South Carolina home of slave trader Nathaniel Russel:

Among the mass of organic matter, they found sewing pins, buttons, marbles, part of a uniform waistcoat, and even fragments of printed paper that could be dated to November 1833. The paper was darkened and curled but still legible once it was gently opened.

“It was protected from rain and moisture, and even though it’s sooty, it didn’t burn,” (University of Delaware art conservator Susan) Buck says. “So we just have all these fragile materials that normally wouldn’t survive.” Among the material, the team recovered scraps of an early writing primer, suggesting some of the enslaved workers living in the kitchen house has been learning to read and write.

To move beyond the written record, historians and conservators have looked for new clues in unlikely places.

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Rats trained to drive tiny cars in pursuit of Froot Loops

Researchers successfully taught rats how to drive small cars in the pursuit of Froot Loops cereal. Video below. Psychologist Kelly Lambert and her colleagues at the University of Richmond conducted the experiment to gain insight into animal cognition. Learning to drive also lowered the rats' stress as measured by hormone levels. From New Scientist:

They constructed a tiny car out of a clear plastic food container on wheels, with an aluminium floor and three copper bars functioning as a steering wheel. When a rat stood on the aluminium floor and gripped the copper bars with their paws, they completed an electrical circuit that propelled the car forward. Touching the left, centre or right bar steered the car in different directions.

The ability of rats to drive these cars demonstrates the “neuroplasticity” of their brains, says Lambert. This refers to their ability to respond flexibly to novel challenges. “I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think,” she says.

Researchers could potentially replace traditional maze tests with more complex driving tasks when using rat models to study neuropsychiatric conditions, says Lambert. For example, driving tests could be used to probe the effects of Parkinson’s disease on motor skills and spatial awareness, or the effects of depression on motivation, she says. “If we use more realistic and challenging models, it may provide more meaningful data,” she says.

"Enriched Environment Exposure Accelerates Rodent Driving Skills" (Behavioral Brain Research)

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Watch firefighters rescue rat stuck in manhole cover

On Sunday in Bensheim, Germany, two children spotted a rat stuck in the vent of a manhole cover. Animal welfare organization Berufstierrettung Rhein-Neckar sent out two rescue workers who were unable to free the rodent. From Smithsonian:

That’s when things get surreal. The 8-member Auerbach volunteer fire brigade soon arrived on the scene wearing their firefighting gear and began a 25-minute rescue operation posted on YouTube. First they subdued the rat around the neck using a pole with a restraining loop at the end. Then, using large, black professional-looking wedges they popped up the heavy manhole cover and animal rescuer Michael Sehr was able to wiggle and work the portly little nibbler loose before releasing him back into the sewer...

The children who first found the rat also thanked the firefighters with a handmade, rat-themed thank you card.

Here's video of the operation:

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Rat in a vending machine

Last week, students at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach, Florida were delighted by a new snack offering in the vending machine. Unfortunately, it wasn't immediately clear how to select this limited time item for purchase.

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World's largest rodent extermination plan clears entire island of pests

South Georgia Island (population 20), due east off the tip of South America, had no rodents until 18th-century sailing ships accidentally introduced them. After seven years of work, the island is now rodent-free, allowing native birds to recover. Read the rest

New York's rat population has genetically diverged into "uptown" and "downtown" subpopulation

Matthew Combs, a Fordham University Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station grad student worked with colleagues from Fordham and the Providence College Department of Biology to sequence the genomes of brown rats in Manhattan, and made a surprising discovery: the geography of rats has a genetic correlation, so a geneticist can tell where a rat was born and raised by analyzing its DNA. Read the rest

An update from the War on Rats

I cut back the vegetation around my home, as it had grown up too high over the wild rainy season and hot summer. Rats had taken over the brush and ivy. My landscaping left them nowhere to go. Nowhere but my woodshed... Read the rest

How musician Dan Deacon collaborated with real rats for the Rat Film soundtrack

Today, Dan Deacon, composer of avant-EDM, freaky electro, and contemporary classical works, released his score for Theo Anthony's new documentary Rat Film, about the history of Baltimore told through its rodent population. Deacon's collaborators for the score? Actual rats. From NPR's All Things Considered, Deacon's explanation of how the rats worked with him on the track above, titled "Redlining":

At the onset of the project, [director] Theo [Anthony] asked me if I could make music with rats. After some thought, my brain landed on the concept of an enclosure made out of theremins (one of the first electronic instruments ever invented and played by hand gestures). As the rats moved from one corner to another, the pitch and volume would change and create these odd harmonies. I was able to record not just the sound, but a digital conversion of the voltage, which proved the most useful. 'Redlining,' a piece for a Disklavier player piano (a self-playing piano that takes incoming MIDI data from a computer), is one of the products of that rat theremin performance/experiment. Using the rat movements as rhythmic data and a rough pitch contour, I began the process of editing together my favorite sections and conforming the note data to a scale. I wanted the tone to be emotionally ambivalent, in parallel with the narration. I wanted the viewer/listener to project their own feeling from their reactions to the content Theo was presenting. The music couldn't be too steering or it would take away from the experience.

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Malware sucks: crappy code makes it easy to hack hackers

Common Remote Access Trojan (RAT) tools -- which allow hackers to remotely control hijacked computers, from the cameras and mics to the hard-drive and keyboard -- are very badly written and it's easy to hijack computers running the "command and control" components that malicious hackers use to control RATted systems. Read the rest

Watch gibbons freak out about a rat scurrying through their enclosure

At Keswick, UK's Lake District Wildlife Park, someone caught footage of what happened when a rat snuck into the gibbon enclosure. I bet the rat won't be back anytime soon.

(via DIGG)

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Count the number of rats climbing this pole when the light is turned on

Is this a restaurant? Bonus points for the unintentional Minecraft mobs sound effects. Read the rest

Watch out for the remote-controlled Pizza Rat!

PrankvsPrank turned a remote-controlled car into the infamous pizza-loving rat to terrorize unwitting passers-by. How-To video below:

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NYC rats walking upright, holding rodent Burning Man

Pizza Rat was just the most brazen example of the rats that are apparently ravaging New York City this year. Apparently it's a record year for the number of rodent complaint calls that citizens have made to the city of New York.

Manhattan Upper West Side resident Nora Prentice says this about an infestation of hundreds of rats in her neighborhood park:

"It's like the Burning Man of rats," she told the Associated Press. "They're just sitting there in a lawn chair waiting for you."

Meanwhile city comptroller Scott Stringer has noticed that rodent evolution has apparently gone awry: "I've seen rats walking upright, saying, 'Good morning, Mr. Comptroller,'" he said. "It's unsightly to see rats running through neighborhoods like they actually bought a co-op somewhere."

I suggest that the city issue every brave soul a copy of Ike Matthews' 1898 classic book "Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher After 25 Years' Experience." Read the rest

How rats can swim up your toilet to terrorize you

Rats can tread water for up to three days, and hold their breath under water for three minutes. Read the rest

UK schools' "anti-radicalisation" software lets hackers spy on kids

The spyware that Impero supplies to UK schools -- which searches kids' Internet use for "jihadi" terms -- uses "password" as its default password, and the company has threatened brutal legal reprisals against the researcher who repeatedly demonstrated their total security negligence. Read the rest

Malware authors use Gmail drafts as dead-drops to talk to bots

Once you've successfully infected your victim's computer with malware, you want to be able to send it orders -- so you spawn an invisible Internet Explorer window, login to an anonymous Gmail account, and check in the Drafts folder for secret orders. Read the rest

Mobile malware infections race through Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

The protesters are dependent on mobile apps to coordinate their huge, seemingly unstoppable uprising, and someone -- maybe the Politburo, maybe a contractor -- has released virulent Ios and Android malware into their cohort, and the pathogens are blazing through their electronic ecosystem. Read the rest

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