"Rats in New York, where is there a better place to study them?" so asks Matthew Combs, a graduate student at Fordham University.
Combs has dedicated several years of his life studying, well, rats. He has been observing rats all over Manhattan for the past three years, trapping hundreds of them, and studying their genetics as part of an ecology research.
What has he found? Apparently, rats in Manhattan are different in unusual ways. Most surprisingly, they're separated into uptown and downtown kinds, because like most of the human residents of New York, they are partial to their neighborhood.
Combs has now shared several details about his study, which was published last week in the Molecular Ecology journal.
Manhattan: Uptown Rats vs. Downtown Rats
What exactly is the difference between rats from uptown and rats from downtown? Essentially, they're classified by location; uptown rats and downtown rats are separated by midtown ones. That doesn't mean there are no midtown rats — it's simply that the commercial district lacks household trash that rats love to eat, and backyards that they love to roam around in.
But wait — don't rats move? Why do uptown rats stay in uptown, and downtown rats do the same?
In his research, Combs found that rats stay within proximity to where they were originally born. They tend to stay close together as a group as well. Rats that belong to the same colony will only be as far as 200 to 400 meters from each other. The percentage of rats who do scamper away and seek other colonies are low, just 5 percent. They go as far as 2,000 meters, and Combs thinks they represent the most danger.
That's because these "dispersing" rats can transfer genetic information and move their pathogens from colony to colony, which could lead to the spread of a disease.
How Rats Move From Place To Place
Fittingly, one of the curiosities that pushed Combs to pursue the study is how rats actually navigate their locales, a topic that hasn't had many discussions, if any.
"Despite the fact that rats live right in our cities and under our feet, under our noses, there's actually quite little knowledge about how they behave in the cities, how they move around," said Combs.
He thinks studying how rats move is important, especially since these rodents carry a number of zoonotic diseases. Learning how these colonies interact is essential if only to formulate management strategies to stop them from wreaking havoc.
Rats are often seen as disgusting, filthy creatures. Rats attack people, even. But Combs thinks there's something fascinating about them, particularly with their ability to change movement patterns relative to how humans move and navigate.
"They're also very social creatures," said Combs.