Are cute little gerbils to blame for Bubonic Plague? (Thinkstock)
Are cute little gerbils to blame for Bubonic Plague?
Lexile

Scientists say they may have solved a centuries-old whodunit.

Why did Europe experience outbreaks of bubonic plague over hundreds of years, starting with the Black Death of 1347 to 1353?

Maybe you can blame gerbils in Asia.

The disease is caused by a bacterium that lives in rodents. The general thought had been that once the germ arrived from Asia to kick off the Black Death, it settled into European rodents and periodically jumped to humans until it disappeared in the early 1800s.

But now, scientific sleuths are suggesting that the true source of those periodic outbreaks was Asia. Maritime trade may have inadvertently imported the disease repeatedly from its ultimate reservoir, great gerbils and other small mammals in Asia, they suggest.

"I don't think there was any sustainable reservoir in Europe," Nils Stenseth of the University of Oslo said in an email.

He and co-authors make their case in an article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their smoking gun is ancient tree rings that preserve fine-grained records of climate in Europe and Asia. Plague jumps from wild rodents to humans in response to climate shifts, and the scientists looked to see if they could match those shifts to the times of regional outbreaks.

They found no evidence of a European reservoir for the disease. But climate records from Asia told a different story.

The researchers identified 16 possible instances between 1346 and 1837 in which plague might have arrived at a European port from Asia. These events were consistently preceded by climate fluctuations in Asia, as recorded by tree rings from Pakistan, with a lag of about 15 years.

Maybe camels, people and fleas in caravans passing through Asia picked up the germ and started it on its journey to Europe via trade routes, the researchers said.

Critical thinking challenge: How did tree rings help scientists?

Assigned 28 times


COMMENTS (26)
  • nylienc-Koc
    3/02/2015 - 09:04 a.m.

    If gerbils were to blame for the bubonic plaque it would be messed up. If camels were the one to cause you would have to deal with it because they're your meaning of survival in the desert but gerbils are pets now days and that means they brought the bubonic plaque to themselves.

  • jarreds-Koc
    3/02/2015 - 10:04 a.m.

    It helped them a lot because without tree's ability to keep records as they do we may never have learned that it started in Asia instead of Europe.

  • Js2001ege
    3/02/2015 - 10:18 a.m.

    Their smoking gun is ancient tree rings that preserve fine-grained records of climate in Europe and Asia. Plague jumps from wild rodents to humans in response to climate shifts, and the scientists looked to see if they could match those shifts to the times of regional outbreaks.

  • sebastiant-DiB
    3/02/2015 - 10:39 a.m.

    So it talk of about the article of they told that gerbils were part of the causes of the Bubonic plague.The research that tell that they had a disease that represent the point of the evidence.

  • Jaket-Lam
    3/02/2015 - 10:39 a.m.

    I think it is interesting how the plague traveled all the way from Asia to Europe on a gerbil. How could a gerbil have walked that far? Also how could they tell the climate from a tree ring?

  • brandonr-DiB
    3/02/2015 - 10:41 a.m.

    This is a story about gerbils and a plague. it is believed that gerbils were kept as pets, even though they might have been carrying a plague.

  • Shivas-Lam
    3/02/2015 - 11:47 a.m.

    Wow. A little and possibly cute rodent causing the black death! Definitely interesting. It's amazing how scientists could use trees to find climate changes and find all the possible times for the disease to spread.

  • nicholas.jones07
    3/02/2015 - 12:35 p.m.

    I think that gerbils being responsible for the plague is very interesting. How could a gerbil have gotten the plague in the first place? If they continue to research they might find the original cause of the plague.

  • alison.richardson63
    3/02/2015 - 12:53 p.m.

    It is not a shock to me that the gerbils could of started the Bubonic Plague because rats and squirrels have carried many diseases through out the years like rabies and Lassa Fever. One way the gerbils could of traveled from Asia to Europe in an underground hole system or when people got from Asia to Europe on ships they could of created a small infestation in one of their boats.

  • pp2000boa
    3/02/2015 - 01:37 p.m.

    It's not that surprising, I think because it was also said the cause was infected rats spreading the diesease to humans and it happened also from dirty sources like water and bad food.

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