The Urban Scientist

The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

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


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.

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

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