The Black Death has always been bad publicity for rats, with the rodent widely blamed for killing millions of people across Europe by spreading the bubonic plague.
But it seems that the creature, in this case at least, has been unfairly maligned, as new research points the finger of blame at gerbils.
The scientists switched the blame from rat to gerbil after comparing tree-ring records from Europe with 7711 historical plague outbreaks.
That isn’t what the research paper (in PNAS) says. And it would be surprising if it did: could it really be true that Asian gerbils were spreading across Europe for centuries without anyone noticing?
The abstract of the paper says
The second plague pandemic in medieval Europe started with the Black Death epidemic of 1347–1353 and killed millions of people over a time span of four centuries. It is commonly thought that after its initial introduction from Asia, the disease persisted in Europe in rodent reservoirs until it eventually disappeared. Here, we show that climate-driven outbreaks of Yersinia pestis in Asian rodent plague reservoirs are significantly associated with new waves of plague arriving into Europe through its maritime trade network with Asia. This association strongly suggests that the bacterium was continuously reimported into Europe during the second plague pandemic, and offers an alternative explanation to putative European rodent reservoirs for how the disease could have persisted in Europe for so long.
If the researchers had found repeated, prevously unsuspected, invasions of Europe by hordes of gerbils, they would have said so in the abstract. They don’t. Not a gerbil to be seen.
The hypothesis is that plague was repeatedly re-imported from Asia (where affected a lots of species, including, yes, gerbils) to European rats, rather than persisting at low levels in European rats between the epidemics. Either way, once the epidemic got to Europe, it’s all about the rats [update: and other non-novel forms of transmission]
In this example, for a change, it doesn’t seem that the press release is responsible. Instead, it looks like progressive mutations in the story as it’s transmitted, with the great gerbil gradually going from an illustrative example of a plague host in Asia to the rodent version of Attila the Hun.
Two final remarks. First, the erroneous story is now in the Wikipedia entry for the great gerbil (with a citation to the PNAS paper, so it looks as if it’s real). Second, when the story is allegedly about the confusion between two species of rodent, it’s a pity the Herald stock photo isn’t the right species.
[Update: Wikipedia has been fixed.]