You dirty rat! Turns out giant gerbils were responsible for the Black Death

For years, black rats have been blamed for spreading bubonic plague, but now scientists in Norway believe it was giant gerbils

Name: Variable.

Age: Immaterial. Just keep replacing them until your child is old enough to contemplate pet-death with equanimity.

Appearance: Happily, interchangeable.

Oh, gerbils! Cute little snuffly things, racing around their wheels and digging through their sawdust and lapping at their little bottles! So sweet, and so much less of an infinite reproach to existence than goldfish! Yes, until they kill you.

I’m sorry, what? Until they kill you.

I think you might be a bit confused. Are you thinking of lions? If you are, don’t worry. Gerbils are a lot smaller and a lot less fierce. You can generally placate them with a sunflower seed. Or is that just hamsters? No, they’re vectors for disease. Including the Black Death.

Oh, I see. You’re thinking of rats. Black rats spread the Black Death. Well, their fleas did. I read it in Horrible Histories. Wrong, they reckon.

Who reckons? Scientists in Oslo who have just published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences purporting to show that while there is no historical correlation between good breeding conditions for rats and the occurrences of plague in the Middle East and Europe, there is between the kind of weather that makes for frisky giant gerbils and millions of bubo-strewn patients all along the Silk Road routes travelled shortly thereafter.

Not my darling Nibbles! He’s no harbinger of doom! Wait – did you say giant gerbils? Yes, Rhombomys opimus, the great gerbil, found throughout the arid, sandy landscapes of central Asia and a known carrier of the plague pathogen Yersinia pestis.

And how great are these great gerbils? Not great at all for us – did you not hear what I just said about the plague pathogen Yersinia pestis?

No, I mean, how big are they? Oh. Up to 8in – or double that if you include the tail.

Wow. What was attractive at one size becomes not at all at another. I know. Like penises.

Mmm. So, are we all safe? As long as one’s charming childhood and/or classroom pet doesn’t look like something from a James Herbert novel? Yes. Nibbles remains a Meriones unguiculatus; the greatest threat is him escaping and gnawing through every electrical wire in the house.

Do say: “Time for your exercise wheel, little one!”

Don’t say: “Could I have a packet of sunflower seeds and some aspirin? I’m not feeling so hot.”

The GuardianTramp

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