New York City’s subway stations are a great place to observe Rattus norvegicus, otherwise known as the Norway Rat, the Brown Rat, the Wharf Rat, the City Rat, the Alley Rat, the Hanover Rat, the House Rat, and the Sewer Rat, among other names. And while New York City, like cities on every continent except for Antarctica, has a large population of rats, the myth that there is a rat per person (or more) is just that, a myth. New York City’s rat population is unknown but it is extremely unlikely that there are as many rats as people. There are, however, as least as many stories about rats as there are people in New York City (some of the stories are rather disgusting), though tales of giant rats are certainly exaggerated. Norway Rats rarely exceed 500 g (a bit over a pound) in weight and stories of rats as large as cats are probably the result of a few too many drinks before staggering off to the subway late at night.
For some reason rats seem to bring out myths and falsehoods. Maybe people just don’t want to look too closely at a creature that lives off of the waste of human society, preferring to keep them out of sight and out of mind. Even the scientific and most common common name are misnomers: Norway Rats actually originated somewhere in central Asia, most likely in China!
One often sees rats in the subway system but the idea that there are vast underground “rat cities” is another myth. Most rats live at ground or basement level and rats never congregate into anything remotely resembling an underground rat metropolis. Rats don’t need to make rat cities because they do just fine in human cities. In fact, rats are probably the second-most successful mammal in the world, behind humans.
So the next time you see a rat, while you don’t want to pet it of course, it doesn’t hurt to at least give the lowly Rattus norvegicus some grudging respect for surviving and even thriving on what we throw away as trash.
And, if for some reason you ended up on this blog looking for a way to control rats on your property, well, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a very helpful pamphlet on the topic.