Gerbils may have caused the Black Death epidemic

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Gerbils, Not Rats, Might Be to Blame for the Black Death

When we hear about the "black death," a couple things come to mind: the death of tens of millions of people, and ... rats.

Our history teachers taught us that the epidemic from 1347-1353 was likely spread by rats carrying fleas infected with bacteria.

And due to this rats may have been getting a bad rap the last 650 years or so. But a new theory says that there is a different culprit behind spreading the disease.

Gerbils. Actually to be more specific, a species of squirrel-sized gerbil from Asia called the great gerbil.

black death / bubonic plague
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Gerbils may have caused the Black Death epidemic
Great Gerbil, Rhombomys opimus
Plague (19th century depiction), Bubonic plague is a zoonotic disease, circulating mainly among small rodents and their fleas. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)
Nineteenth Century English engraving of ghastly scene of Death Cart empyting corpses into a mass grave or Plague Pit at night during the Great Plague of London, an outbreak of bubonic plague which killed some 70, 000 persons. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
An inscription on a wall of Ashwell Church, Hertfordshire, written during the epidemic of plague that swept through Europe in the middle of the 14th century known as the Black Death, May 1979. (Photo By RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)
Early Nineteenth Century engraving of a black rat similar to that which carried the fleas that spread the bubonic plague in crowded urban areas during the Great Plague of London, an outbreak which killed some 70, 000 persons. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Victims of the Black Death being buried at Tournai, then part of the Netherlands, 1349. The Black Death was thought to have been an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which killed up to half the population of Europe. From the 'Chronique et Annales de Gilles le Muisit'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Late Eighteenth Century (?) English engraving of grief stricken mourners among the dead and dying in the streets of London during the Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic plague which killed some 70, 000 persons. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A plague hospital in Vienna during the Great Plague of Vienna, Austria, 1679. The disease, thought to be the bubonic plague, claimed around 76,000 lives. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Filling a mass grave at night during the Plague of London, c 1665. Showing a group of men with torches in a churchyard, preparing to empty the contents of a covered cart into an open grave. The Plague, also known as the Black Death, was a disease caused by Yersinia Pestis, an infection carried by fleas living as parasites on rats. The Plague hit London in late 1664, having ravaged Holland the previous year, and killed around 100,000 people in and around the city. The dead were collected at night and thrown into common burial graves. (Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Researchers in Norway involved in the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, studied tree-ring records from Europe and Asia to determine what the weather was like at the time of the outbreaks.

The study found the climate was warmer and wetter in Asia during outbreaks, which meant more plague among the great gerbil population there.

"Now, the team is planning to analyze the DNA of plague bacteria from ancient skeletons across Europe to see if their theory is correct. If it is, it could cast this fluffy little pet in a whole new light," the BBC anchor reported.

Or maybe not. It seems the rats still aren't gonna catch a break. Gizmodo broke the news to its viewers by saying the plague was spread by "cute gerbils" and not "dirty rats."

The study says rats were probably responsible for maintaining the plague on ships, which would have spread it to ports across Europe. We're thinking we're going to just get a pet cat or dog instead.

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