Rats Off the Hook for the Black Death?

SCIENCE

What?! New evidence suggests that rat fleas were not entirely responsible for the pandemic plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century. (the Guardian)

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Black rats (Rattus rattus, a rodent so nice they named it twice) have been blamed for the Black Death for more than 500 years. Unfairly, it turns out. Photograph by H. Zell, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Black rats (Rattus rattus, a rodent so nice they named it twice) have been blamed for the Black Death for more than 500 years. Unfairly, it turns out.
Photograph by H. Zell, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Discussion Ideas

 

  • The Guardian article says the Black Death, long associated with the bubonic plague, was perhaps predominantly a form of pneumonic plague. What do you think the major differences between the diseases are?
    • The major difference is where the infection is located. Bubonic plague settles in the lymph system, leading to the telltale “buboes”, or darkened swellings around the lymph nodes of the armpit and groin. Pneumonic plague settles in the lungs. (A third plague sister, septicemic plague, infects the blood.) The Black Death was probably a pandemic that included all three plagues, so rats aren’t entirely off the hook.
    • Pneumonic plague spreads much, much more quickly than bubonic plague. This is because the diseases have different vectors. A vector is an organism that carries and transmits disease to another organism.
      • The vector in bubonic plague is mostly fleas, themselves carried by rats. A person has to be bitten by an infected flea to catch the disease.
      • The vector in pneumonic plague is mostly human beings. Pneumonic plague can be spread simply by the air we breathe.

One response to “Rats Off the Hook for the Black Death?

  1. Pingback: Minor Tweak to Titanic Theory | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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