Thursday, October 20, 2011

Invasive Species: Gambian Pouch Rat

I decided to break away from the list of 100 World's Worst Invasives for a little while, as the database seems to have malfunctioned and is displaying well over 100 listings currently.

The Gambian pouch rat (Cricetomys gambianus)
The Gambian pouch rat is native to much of Africa and it is invasive in the Florida Keys. It's one of the largest Murid rodents (i.e. rats, mice, and related species) and have a maximum weight close to three kilograms. One distinctive characteristic is the last third of their tail, which is a pale cream color. They are a burrowing species and can live for up to eight years.

These large rats were introduced to the area through the pet trade, and it is likely that several of the animals either escaped or were purposefully released. One potentially negative impact is associated with this species' abilities to carry a large number of diseases referred to as "zoonoses." These sorts of diseases are easily transmissible between humans and other animals. The Gambian pouch rat is a carrier for such zoonoses as monkeypox and leptospirosis. In fact, a monkeypox outbreak in the United States led to a ban on the import of this species for five years. Other negative impacts of this rat includes threatening several endangered or threatened local species. They are also a known eater of food crops. 

One of the APOPO HeroRATs
Positive uses of the Gambian pouch rat includes its use as food in Nigeria and as pets. My favorite use of the species, however, is a group called the APOPO has been training these animals to detect landmines! Some advantages to using rats as opposed to other forms of finding the mines are: they are too light to set the mines off, they are food motivated, they are cheap to care for, are a low-tech option for areas with few resources, and they have great senses of smell. They are also resistant to many of the local diseases that could otherwise be problematic. Apparently they are really quite effective, and they can also be trained to detect tuberculosis in human sputum. Tough an invasive species, these rats can also help save numerous lives though their work with such organizations as APOPO.

Sources are the Global Invasive Species Database and APOPO. Images are from Wikimedia Commons and are either under a creative commons license or are copyright free: one, two

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