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The study will “exonerate” the rats from their crucial role in the spread of the Black Death in Europe.


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A new study suggests that rats may not have been as critical to the Black Death as they are often portrayed.

The bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1353, killing millions of people. Then plague outbreaks continued in Europe until the nineteenth century.

One of the most common facts about the plague in Europe is that it was spread by rats. In some parts of the world, the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis has maintained the long-term spread of plague among wild rodents and fleas. This is called “storage” of animals.

While bubonic plague starts in wild rodents, it is sometimes transmitted to humans, and Europe may have once had animal ‘hoards’ causing plague epidemics to spread, but another plausible scenario also states that the plague spread again and again from Asia. These scenarios have long sparked scholarly debate about what actually took place.

A new study recently published in the journal PNAS suggests that environmental conditions in Europe at the time would have prevented the plague from surviving in stable, long-term “reservoirs” of animals.

The results suggest two options for the continuation of the epidemic that devastated Europe: first, it was most likely caused by the return of the plague from the Asian “animal reservoirs”. Secondly, there could be “short or medium-term temporary warehouses” in Europe.

In the study, scientists, including those from the University of Oslo in Norway, examined environmental factors associated with active rodent plague reservoirs in China.

The team then compared the results to active disease “reservoirs” in the western United States and used a modeling approach to identify European plague “reservoirs” in both contemporary and historical contexts.

Analysis indicates that soil composition (including high concentrations of copper, iron, and magnesium, as well as high soil pH) and low rodent diversity in Europe at the time likely made the continent unfavorable for long-term “plague reservoirs”.

The study estimated that only about 0.6% of Europe’s geographic area could have “favorable storage conditions”.

Scholars say this includes parts of Spain, Portugal, southern France, western/central Italy, and eastern Greece.

The team explains that the results raise questions about the importance of wild rodent species as the main plague vector in Europe.

“Our analyzes strongly suggest that local environmental factors in Western and Central Europe, including soil chemistry, high altitudes and climate, did not create favorable conditions for permanent, long-term plague reservoirs maintained by wild rodents and their ectoparasites,” — scientists write. .

They added: “We question the importance of wild rodents as major hosts in Europe.” Instead, the scientists say, the bacterium Yersinia pestis has repeatedly been imported to Europe and may have survived in local intermediate reservoirs.

In a clearer sense, scientists believe that the plague appears to have created short- and medium-term reservoirs among European rodents as it traveled from Central Asia to Europe. Presumably, the most likely place for this is Central Europe.

The findings raise the important question of whether transmission of bubonic plague depends on sedentary rodents, when instead it can spread more efficiently directly, from person to person.

Scientists have suggested that it may be caused by external parasites (fleas and possibly lice) or people’s respiratory systems and touch.

Questions such as the exact role of humans and rats in previous plagues require more work.

“These findings have significant implications for the study of human plague throughout history and provide new tools to solve age-old mysteries shaped by plague,” the scientists said.

Source: Independent

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