Gerbils, not rats, may have fueled 14th century European plague

A new study has challenged the widely held view that communities of rats pushed plague to Europe in 14th century by suggesting that rodent with a much cuddlier reputation, the gerbil, may have played host to the fleas carrying the disease for hundreds of years.

ANI| Last Updated: Feb 26, 2015, 11:29 AM IST

Washington: A new study has challenged the widely held view that communities of rats pushed plague to Europe in 14th century by suggesting that rodent with a much cuddlier reputation, the gerbil, may have played host to the fleas carrying the disease for hundreds of years.

A team of scientists from Norway and Switzerland say that they think the plague bacteria could have sprung from populations of the great gerbil and other rodent species in Central Asia, the CNN reported.

Researcher Nils Christian Stenseth of the University of Oslo said that if they're right, they'll have to rewrite that part of history.

The scientists, who investigated Europe's second plague pandemic that began with the infamous Black Death from 1347 to 1353 and continued on and off for four centuries, claim that rats weren't found in large areas of northern Europe during the period, and the peaks of the plague outbreaks don't correspond well with the climate conditions that suit rapid spreading of the disease by rat fleas.

Instead, by analyzing climate data gleaned from tree rings, they found clues that suggest the plague might have repeatedly been carried back into Europe from outbreaks among rodents in Central Asia.

Stenseth added that they show that wherever there were good conditions for gerbils and fleas in Central Asia, some years later the bacteria shows up in harbor cities in Europe and then spreads across the continent.

Caravans of traders and their camels that traveled through infested areas in Central Asia could have picked up the disease and sent it along trade routes reaching into Europe.

Ken Gage, a plague expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that if you get your gerbil at a pet store, you have nothing to worry about.

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.