Building a better rat


This is an article about rats. If you just want the meat of the story: go here. If you want to see me indulge in some facebook-ism first, stay tuned.

This is London, one of the cuties out of a group of three female fancy rats that I tended to somewhere around 2012. She was a playful rat that interacted a lot with humans. With London, I repeated a mistake which I had earlier made with another pack, I introduced her into the group after it was already established. Rats are fiercely territorial, and so she got attacked by the “alpha female” out of the group. She never truly became a member of the small rat family, bungling at the bottom of the pack order, quickly turning on her back every time a fight was initiated. The girl that attacked her is Lexy:

Here she is exhibiting typical washing behavior. Lexy was a very strong and healthy rat for most her life. It ended tragically, however, as she fell down from the sink one day trying to escape a nail clipping, and this damaged her spine. From that day on, her hind legs started to slowly give out, and in the end she was dragging them behind her, crawling around on her front legs.

All in all, fancy rats, the domesticated form of Rattus norvegicus or brown rat, are pretty neat pets. They are inquisitive and intelligent, they bond pretty well with humans, they can be trained to be housebroken to a certain extent, and their antics are fun to watch. Downsides are a short life-span (about two years for healthy specimens, lots of tumors at the end), a constant drive to gnaw (they will destroy anything made of wood or fabric if you let them), and the fact that they use pee as a means of communication (they will urinate everywhere if you let them).
We are going to take a short detour now, and visit foxes. Soviet foxes. Somewhere at the end of the fifties, a Russian scientist started a breeding program with the Vulpes vulpes or red fox species, as part of an experiment pertaining to genetics. New generations were selected based on how well they responded to humans (“tameness”), and this was repeated for several decades. At this point the research group has a group of foxes that are very tame and interact well with humans.
Funny side-note (and this was also part of what the experimenter wanted to prove): the tame group of foxes’ morphology changed along with their behavior. They started looking more like dogs! This seems to indicate that genes that have to do with behavior can also influence appearance. Hey… could this also be true for humans? Now there’s an experiment that will never make it past the ethics commission!
The process that has been made explicit in the experiment has in a way already occurred in the brown fancy rat, as rat catchers performed their own natural selection on the poor little critters. But now take a look at this:

This is a giant rat species, discovered in an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea some years ago. It is about the size of a cat. You probably already see where this is going. Yes, this could be a great domestication target! What would happen if they were bred and selected for tameness, and also for intelligence? There is the potential for a great new pet, with the upsides of the fancy rat, but with a higher cuddle-factor (just ignore the tail, ladies)!
There are some questions beforehand, however, and documentation is scarce in light of this being a recently discovered species. Are they social creatures like Rattus norvegicus? Are they as intelligent as the brown rat, or even more intelligent? Do they live a bit longer than their tiny cousins? Should I stop taking crazy pills? Whatever the case may be, I will be monitoring the situation. When I know more, a Kickstarter campaign may be in order.
Have a great day!



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