You dirty rat! Turns out giant gerbils were responsible for the Black Death
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Do say: “Time for your exercise wheel,
Don’t say: “Could I have a packet of
sunflower seeds and some aspirin? I’m not
feeling so hot.”