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African Giant Pouched Rats as Invasive Species: Ecological, Agricultural and Public Health Threats

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Early today, I Skyped in and gave a quick presentation to University of Louisville BIO 263 Environmental Biolog students.  My friend and colleague Dr. Tommy Parker is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Urban Wildlife Research Lab. The course focuses on the relationships between humans and the environment. Topics include ecology, population biology, modifications to the environment, resource use, land use planning, pollution, and energy. The goal is to better understand the biological principles of environmental effects on living organisms with emphasis on the ecological relationships of man, resource exploitation, pollution, environmental degradation, and the social problems that human use (and misuse) of the environment create.

I gave them a little introduction to African Giant Pouched Rats, sometimes call Gambian Pouched rats, Cricetomys gambianus.  My rats, as cute and interesting and I think they are, are an exotic animal, not native to the United States. And they have made the news more than one time for their presence in the Grassy Keys of Florida. Local Fish and Wildlife and Conservation authorities are worried about this rodent, especially if it ever reaches the mainland.  This species has the potential to become an invasive species and wreak havoc on our natural ecology, agriculture and public health.

In April 2003, there was a human monkeypox outbreak in the the midwest US (Hutson et al. 2007). Pouched rats were co-housed with prairie dogs, Cynomys ludovicinus, at an exotic pet store. A few dozen people were ill, most notably a few young children.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local health officials got things under control, but as a result, rodents from African and especially African Pouched Rats, were no longer allowed in the US.  Getting special permission to bring these animals to the United States and do my research is time-intensive. It also means, I have to be very, very careful about how I handle these animals.

These animals could cause a trifecta of devastation to Oklahoma and the United States: agricultural, ecological, and zoonotic.  And all of it could be traced back to me (and my university). I don’t want to become famous for something like this.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mythusmage 8:35 pm 10/30/2012

    Seems to me we need to learn how to treat monkey pox, assuming the pouched rats in the Keys get to the mainland.

    I also wonder, considering how easily pouched rats bond with humans, if that trait could be bred for – much as it was bred for with siberian foxes and minks – producing a domestic pouched rat.

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  2. 2. Philip Kirk 12:11 pm 10/31/2012

    As a biologist living in the northeast I’ve been concerned with “invasive” species for some time (e.g. zebra mussels,quagga mussels,spiny water fleas, etc.).

    The term “invasive” has always troubled me though. Ultimately, any species will take advantage of a habitat that becomes open and available to them.

    We usually blame human activity and population growth as a key ingredient to expanding species invasion. But let’s remind ourselves what the ultimate invasive species expansion has been globally – Homo sapiens. In geological time frames, it’s been short and devastating.

    In my opinion, we are the worst invasive species that has ever evolved on this planet.

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  3. 3. greenhome123 2:07 am 11/1/2012

    I agree with Philip Kirk that the most invasive species on earth is humans. Nevertheless, I would not like these rats taking over my yard. I am curious as to what type of predators eat these rats in the wild.

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