mudskipper magazine  cover


Other articles

Other projects
Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Nov 97
The Year of the Rat is Over!
Part 1 | Part 2

Text by N. Sivasothi
Figures by Kelvin Lim

Torture and Tyranny
Ever since I can remember, there were rats in the lab. And 1990 appeared to be the height of their indiscretion. Pounding on the aluminium fittings that form the false ceiling, a thunderous sound would reverberate through the room as they ran by, halting all conversation. Lab denizens would wait patiently for the passing of the rodent horde, and then resume their dialogue. Rat - any of over 500 groups of small rodents found worldwide in almost all habitats. Most are herbivores and inoffensive. But the best known are the black rat (Rattus rattus) and brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), both of the family Muridae. They are prolific, aggressive, and eat practically anything and carry many deadly diseases and destroy or contaminate property and food. Both are of Asiatic origin, but now live everywhere man does. Black rats are dark grey, under 8 in (20 cm) long, weigh under 12 oz (350g), and have long tails and big ears. Brown rats are slightly heavier and longer with shorter tails and smaller ears. Most lab rats are albino strains of brown rats.

Random House Encyclopedia, 1990

killer rat from hell Visitors, however, were unsettled by the vision of "Killer rats from hell stamping through the nether realms" with which we dismissed the interruption, with an airy wave of the hand.

When they first move in, there are subtle cues of their nocturnal activity for things get knocked over. Specimen bottles, tissue boxes, books. Stuff you pick up the next morning with nary a thought. Piecing together the signs would actually reveal a network of their favourite runs through the lab. It is this period during which they are "casing the joint". Once we met with approval, discretion would soon be flung to the wind during the period of their greatest industry - breeding season!

Oh! The happy occasion which brings little baby rats into the lab to further plague our lives! Mom rats laboriously drag anything with nesting potential back to their hidey-hole, or manufacture suitable material from the resources the lab provides - books, papers and boxes. They also have a maniacal habit (it drove us nuts!) of tasting everything in apparent preparation of a food database for their post-Armageddon tea-party. A nibble here, a tug there - nothing was left untouched - lid covers of specimen jars, corners of books, drawers, etc.

Soon the air would be filled with the joyful squeaks of baby rats as mummy scuttled towards them, back from a foraging expedition. Sometimes, we could hear them chirp sleepily in the afternoons. On occasion, tragedy would strike the happy family.

mite leaping off a dead rat Diana discovered a dead baby rat perched by its head at the corner of her table one morning. When a mite leap out at them from another dead body, she and Cheryl fumigated the lab with Ridsect - while Prof and I were still inside!

The thoughts of zoologists inevitably contemplated keeping pet pythons or ferrets in the ceiling to rid us of the unholy plague. This, of course, never materialised, and instead, the rat population waxed and waned according to changing fortunes or the logistic equation. A long period followed in 1995 during which we were relieved of their presence, or perhaps they were merely quiet enough for us to ignore. Perhaps an ecological disaster had struck rat city with a vengeance? In the meantime, the lab became filled with new honours and postgraduate students. The food in the fridge, which had hitherto been our only refuge from the flea-bearing foragers, was now pitifully vulnerable to the indiscriminate foraging of a burping bipedal rat by the name of Heok Hee, a third generation postgraduate of Peter's.

The Year of the Rat
The first generation postgrads of Peter's (Daphne, Cheryl, Diana and myself) were never enthusiastic rat-catchers. We merely tried keeping the lab clean with Tommy's help. We half-heartedly put out the occasional rat trap, which the Estate Office provided.

wet rat screaming rude thingsI even set free a piteously shivering, screaming rat that had been trapped overnight in the cleaning lady's half-filled mop pail. It screamed rude things at me, jumping as it staggered away, apparently blaming me for it's night of abject suffering.

The effective elimination of vermin on the second level [S2-02], was instead achieved by our neighbour, Koh Siang, who maintained a steady rate of successful captures over many years. He shared with us the same rodent population for all labs in the second floor, and in fact in the whole building, is interconnected, via the ceilings and corridors.

This steady but conservative rate of elimination was dwarfed by the population boom of 1996 - the year of the rat! We began to frequently see rats in broad daylight! Where it had previously extended to the disappearing tail of a lone individual, rats were now crossing our paths in the corridor, a group was playing(!) next to the aquarium behind Block S2 and others would cross the roof outside BioScience Centre. Unsuspecting individuals would often yelp in surprise for they would be greeted by the apparition of a flying rat. Warned by the sound of approaching footsteps, it would leap from the litter bin, across the corridor, to scoot off into the clutter of the washing area.

Continue to Part 2...

© N Sivasothi, 2001