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Awwwwww, rats (and Mice)! Pesky rodents have a long and not-so-pleasant history.

You spy a hole in the wall, a feedbag, a bin of pet food, or a box of goodies you were thinking about using for supper. It's not a big hole, really, but the mess around the break-in gives you a big clue to the identity of the culprit, and it gives you the shivers, big-time!

Imagine the surprise of your ancient ancestors. There they were, just looking for dinner, when they were faced with a rodent the size of an ox. The guinea-pig-like Phoberomys might've made them say, "EEEEEK!" Then it probably made them run for the hills.

That reaction might sound familiar, but, fortunately for you, the wild rodents you're likely to rassle with are much, much smaller. The mouse in your house can weigh just an ounce. Your cat knows a rat is lots bigger than that. But size for size, those little guys vandalize much more than their fossilized brethren ever did.

You can thank some not-so-ancient ancestors for that: Though there were certainly rodents in North America millions of years ago, the species of rats and mice that have taken up residence in your house or barn are not native to this continent.

So-called "Old World" rats--the black rat and the more common Norway, or brown, rat--hail from the Far East. Taking advantage of ancient trade routes, they hitched rides to Europe hundreds of years ago and colonized there. Seizing the opportunity for new housing developments, they snuck aboard ships and came to North America, possibly in the 17th century. House mice, it is believed, came here with the Vikings, probably knowing nothing about football.

Even if they did, wild rats and mice still make lousy houseguests.

Something to chew on

Rodents are said to be the most destructive species ever, aside from humankind. Rats and mice will easily gnaw through concrete if they feel the need to do so (rats can even gnaw through iron), which doesn't do anything for a building, but does save the critters' bacon. Their pearly whites continue to grow throughout their lives, and if they don't wear down their teeth through gnawing, their jaws can lock or their skulls can be pierced. That gnawing can undermine buildings and, since wire insulation is fair game, it can cause ruinous fires.

Because of their prodigious excretory systems (rats urinate up to 80 times a day) and their willingness to "go" anywhere they go, rats and mice ruin millions of tons of food each year, not only in kitchens and pantries, but in large-size granaries, too. They aren't picky about their cuisine, either: Mice and rats are just as happy with garbage, body waste or pet food as they are with people food, and if none of the above is handy, they'll happily resort to cannibalism. Rats and mice both will eat 10 to 15 percent of their body weight per day in whatever they can find or scrounge and, by the way, they never need antiemetics because they cannot vomit.

Rats swim exceedingly well and have been known to crawl inside sewer pipes (something to remember for those middle-of-the-night bathroom trips). They spread garbage and germs, and they carry somewhere around 35 different diseases, including bubonic plague. Wild mice also carry their share of diseases, including the hantavirus--a rare but deadly viral infection. Both can carry rabies, but are not particularly known for doing so.

Jumping Jehoshaphat!

Once you stop shivering and your skin stops crawling, check this out: Rats are first-class jumpers (of more than 3 feet, if they must), can fall a considerable distance without hurting themselves (reports are of several-story falls), and can run more than 20 miles per hour in short bursts. They can squish through a hole smaller than a quarter (mice, the size of a dime), they're excellent high-wire walkers, and they are thigmophilic, which means they use exquisitely sensitive whiskers and coat-hair to navigate in total darkness. Rats don't see well in daylight, but mice are fine with 9-to-5 hours.

There's an old saying that where there's one mouse, there's more mice. That's because doe mice reproduce some eight times a year with litters of around six hairless kittens (also called pups or, appropriately, pinkies). She can become pregnant again two days after giving birth, and each pup reaches sexual maturity in about a month (a little more of all the above for a rat), which means that just one pair of mice can result in many thousand offspring (for rats, slightly fewer). Lifespan for both kinds of critters is two to three years, unless you've got good cats and better traps.

So there you are: The best-laid plans of mice and men and rats. And if that doesn't make you say, "EEEEEEEEK!" then nothing will.

Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.

ON THE WEB Combat these creepy critters with the Rat Zapper (http://bit.ly/17QaLMH).
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Author:Schlichenmeyer, Terri
Publication:Grit
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Words:827
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