Native rats touted as pest control in Australia

Fri Aug 12, 2011 5:47am EDT
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By Pauline Askin

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - In Australia, it may take a rat to control a rat.

Scientists have high hopes that introducing native Australian bush rats to the area around Sydney Harbour will help control black rats, a non-native species, that have long been a scourge to flora and fauna.

Black rats, which carry diseases such as plague and lung worm, capable of spreading to humans and animals, were introduced to Australia more than 200 years ago, possibly on the first fleet of ships carrying white settlers.

The bush rats once lived in Sydney but the last confirmed sighting was more than a century ago. They may have been eliminated due to a government bounty for each rat killed during an epidemic of bubonic plague.

Roughly 40 of the bush rats were released on a hectare of land on Thursday night, after the same number of black rats were trapped and removed. Research suggests that one species of rat will not invade another's territory.

"We know from basic theory that if you have an intact native fauna then invaders can't get into those areas," said Peter Banks, Associate Professor in Conservation Biology at the University of Sydney.

"So we thought maybe we can use the same logic by taking black rats out and putting bush rats in."

Compared to black rats, bush rats don't climb trees as much and are thus less likely to disturb birds' nests or eat eggs, meaning bird numbers may increase. They also tend to stay outside and are less likely to enter houses.   Continued...

<p>Small waves crash over rocks across the harbour from the Sydney city skyline May 23, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne</p>