Study: The Gerbils Did It

250px-GerbilBurying_Plague_Victims_of_TournaiI had one as a kid named Garibaldi. Millions of people embraced them as pets. However, a study is attributing one of the greatest plagues in history to the cute little rodents: the bubonic plague. While long blamed on rats hiding away on ships, the scientists at the University of Oslo in Norway now believe that the 14th Century plague began with gerbils via the Silk Road.

The scientists found it was not ships but caravans to Europe from Asia via trade routes that brought the plague. If true, it would re-write our view of history. After studying tree rings, the team found that outbreaks in Europe occurred approximately 15 years after a period of wet weather and warmer temperatures in Asia that led to a major increase in the gerbil and flea populations. They are going to examine the DNA from plague bacterium to try to confirm the link.

If proven, little Garibaldi and his ancestors killed up to 200 million people from 1346 and 1353. I always thought he looked like he was smirking at me.


20 thoughts on “Study: The Gerbils Did It”

  1. Maybe they thought gerbils were rats…a rat, gerbil, mouse, hamster…whatever you call them they’re rodents and can carry diseases. I found out that armadillos carry something that can cause leukemia in humans.
    Brings on the cats!!

  2. Well, this is just preliminary theories. There is still a lot of work to do.

    Even if the gerbils were the index vector, the Plague was certainly spread through mice and rats.

    The ACTUAL cause of the plague was not gerbils, at all, but rather a superstition that cats were evil. Cats were banned, and the penalties for owning a cat were severe. It was wiping out millions of cats that caused a rodent explosion which then caused the unchecked spread of the Plague.

    Bedding and floor coverings of rushes and straw were prime habitat to breed fleas, and hygiene being what it was caused an explosion of rodent populations. Only a robust amount of cat ownership would keep it in check.

    What is interesting is that cats, too, were an importation from the East.

  3. By the time a paper has been reported in the press and blogged upon by a non-specialist, the primary point of it tends to be lost. The paper, “Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe”, can be found here:

    “The Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.”

  4. @ Nick Spinelli

    The fusion cuisine possibilities are intriguing. Maybe a good Friday night meal at your daughter’s house would be a large lutefisk adobo mojado pizza with plantains?

  5. Chinggis’ great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather build roads that go all over Asia. Had rest stops. Easy for Mongols to travel. Easier for gerbils to travel. Hard to flea the plague.

  6. @ Porkchop

    LOL….commas have consequences.

    Just joking Professor….we know what you meant.

  7. The Prarie Dogs in Colorado have been sighted as carriers of the Bubonic Plague. I am not sure about other states but the lab tests have proved positive for the PD in CO.

    1. Sumpter – the Four Corners area is one of places to be wary of bubonic plague. There are usually several cases every year.

  8. Pork, My daughter married a guy, from Minnesota, half Norwegian, half Puerto Rican. Must be a good combo because he’s a great guy.

  9. I am half Norwegian, but even I can see that this is probably a not-so-subtle attempt to clear the Norway rat of blame.

  10. “I had one as a kid named Garibaldi.”

    Wait — you were named Garibaldi as a kid? Why did you change your name to Jonathan? “Garibaldi Turley” has a nice ring to it.

  11. I never trusted gerbils. It was that going around in a circle that threw me off.

    On a second note, liberals get huffy about Columbus, et al, exposing the Native Americans to smallpox but no one seems upset with the Chinese for the plague. Why do they get a pass?

  12. Maybe some research needs to be done on gerbils complicity w/ the spread of AIDS, as well.

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