KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If you think you know what's responsible for the Black Death, think again. Turns out a new study claims that gerbils helped bring the bubonic plague to medieval Europe. This could partially clear the name of another rodent, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Plague is caused by bacteria found in rodents and the fleas that live on rodents. The rodent that's usually suspect zero is the rat.
NILS CHRISTIAN STENSETH: I like rats. But there is a myth around rats that they are evil.
BRUMFIEL: Nils Christian Stenseth is at the University of Oslo. He says the rat story doesn't add up. If rats carried plague to Europe and Europe is still full of rats today, then plague should be alive and well in Europe, but it isn't. Stenseth suspects that plague came from Asia, where it still exists today. The rodents that carry plague in Asia include the gerbil.
STENSETH: What we are suggesting is that it was gerbils in Central Asia and the bacteria in gerbils that eventually came to Europe.
BRUMFIEL: His group used climate records to check their theory and they found a tentative link. When the climate in Asia was good, gerbils thrived. When it went bad, the population crashed. And soon after, plague came to Europe. It's likely fleas carrying plague jumped from dead gerbils to pack animals and traders, and they brought it to European cities. Stenseth isn't alone. Plague experts like Ken Gage are beginning to think that rats should be at least partially exonerated.
KEN GAGE: When you see the old textbooks and the description of plague during the Black Death, it's all rats and rat fleas. And that story got going, and it's persisted for a long time.
BRUMFIEL: Gage works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says gerbils and other Asian rodents look like the real threat. But Gage says the CDC doesn't see the domestic gerbils as dangerous.
GAGE: You get your gerbil at a pet store and what have you, you have nothing to worry about.
BRUMFIEL: Pet gerbils aren't exposed to plague, and hopefully they don't have the fleas needed to carry it either. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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