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Nothing In Nature Outchomps the Mighty Rat

First, why we care. The short answer is that they won. Rats, in terms of evolution, are kings. This is probably obvious if you live in, say, New York or Baltimore, where one can easily see the situation for what it really is of humans existing to...
April 28, 2012, 8:27pm

First off, why we care. The short answer is that they won. Rats, in terms of evolution, are kings. This is probably obvious if you live in, say, New York or Baltimore, where one can easily see the situation for what it really is of humans existing to provide awesome food for rats in more quanities than the rat kingdom can ever hope to consume, and as readily available as air. At the very least, rats are at the top of a particular kingdom, reigning with relative impunity and living in fear only of the the occasional backyard dog or (very) bold cat. And cancer.

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Like us “winners,” rats tend to eat terribly and get fat and then get cancer. Rats respond to many of the same carcinogens that people respond to — in fast-forward — which is why we study them in labs. And why rats are are relatively likely to explode in horrible tumors. The spoils of evolutionary victory, right? In any case, researchers have been studying the bites of rats and how their little jaws work compared to other animals in the rodent world because it has, possibly, something to do with rat victory, which has to do generally with the broader scheme of victory via natural selection.

The conclusion is that rats have the best bite in nature. Nothing but nothing outchomps a rat. “Since the Eocene era, approximately 56 to 34 million years ago, rodents have been adapting their skulls and jaw muscles in, what we might call an evolutionary race,” says Dr. Philip Cox, author of a new rodent mastication study out in the journal PLoS One. “A group of rodents called sciuromorphs, which includes the squirrel, began to specialise in gnawing adaptations, and the hystricomorphs, including the guinea pig, chose chewing. The myomorphs, the rats and the mice, however, adapted to both chewing and gnawing.”

“The results. . .showed that the way rat muscles have adapted over time, has increased their ability to chew more effectively than a guinea pig and gnaw better than a squirrel, even though these two species are specialists in these kinds of jaw movements,” says co-researcher Dr Nathan Jeffery. “This goes some way to explaining why rats and mice are so successful, as well as destructive, as their versatile feeding behaviour allows them to eat through a wide variety of materials efficiently.”

So, if a squirrel or whatever had aquired those same biting skills, it could have won the race to junk food victory and tumors and all of the other spoils of the top of the food chain. A bleak victory, but maybe not as bad as starving or getting chomped by something else. In any case, way to go rats, way to go people. Now let’s split some jalapeno poppers.

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Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.