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? It began with the Black Death of 1347 to 1353.

Maybe you can blame gerbils in Asia.

The disease is caused by a bacterium. It 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. The disease periodically jumped to humans. 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. It might have repeatedly come from great gerbils and other small mammals in Asia.

"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. The rings preserve fine-grained records of climate in Europe and Asia. Plague jumps from wild rodents to humans in response to climate shifts. 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 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. The climate changes were 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. That is how it could have started on its journey to Europe via trade routes, the researchers said.

Critical thinking challenge: How did tree rings help scientists?

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COMMENTS (138)
  • Kiante C.
    3/02/2015 - 08:32 a.m.

    Tree rings help scientist because it tell a story.It also tell how old the tree is.they said "Their smoking gun is ancient tree rings. The rings preserve fine-grained records of climate in Europe and Asia."

  • mariam-Weh
    3/02/2015 - 09:02 a.m.

    I think it is crazy that little rodents could be so deadly. The text states that people that pass through that area get the germs. The text also states that the scientists found evidence of this from the weather patterns. Therefor it is crazy that such small animals could do such a thing.

  • joshz-Koc
    3/02/2015 - 09:03 a.m.

    it's funny how this little animal can carry this horrible disease. Something that little carried something as big as that plague, which that plague killed so many people.. crazy

  • MCS2001softball
    3/02/2015 - 10:17 a.m.

    It's interesting to think that a small little rodent could have been the culprit of a mass plague that left millions dead. In this case, when we have thought otherwise for so many years, it's a big deal to find the cause of something that was this deadly.

  • Dm2001
    3/02/2015 - 10:20 a.m.

    The tree rings helped scientist by keeping record of the climate changes and helped tell the story anout how they probably got the germ from Asia to Europe.

  • SeabassK-5
    3/02/2015 - 11:15 a.m.

    This article is about how scientists may have discovered how the Black Death started in Europe. They think it started from gerbils in Asia. This disease is caused by bacterium. It lives in rodents. " I don't think there was any sustainable reservoir in Europe." Nils Stenseth of the University of Oslo said in an email. He believes the plague jumped from wild rodents to people due to a climate change. These were consistently preceded by fluctuations in Asia. The climate changes were recorded by the tree rings from Pakistan, with a lag of about fifteen years. Why aren't scientists trying to find a cure for this medicine? Can scientists predict the next outbreak of the plague?

  • 23Ottman
    3/02/2015 - 11:16 a.m.

    WYATT- Wow! Seeming that a simple household pet could carry diseases, this is really starting to make sense. Especially since rats and mice are pets to some people, this is really making sense.

  • ClaytonB-Bru
    3/02/2015 - 11:37 a.m.

    The rings helped the scientists figure out when the gerbil's black death came into Asia and Europe and out of Asia and Europe in what years but, in my opinion I don't think the tree rings would help with the disease's cure.

  • JackR-5
    3/02/2015 - 12:19 p.m.

    Scientists are beginning to believe that to be Bubonic plague was caused by gerbils from Asia. The old belief was that it originated in Europe. Scientists do not believe that there was a large enough reservoir for the plague to originate in Europe. Other mammals like camels could've brought the disease as well. There have been 16 instances where scientist believe the plague was transferred. I think that the plague probably originated from Asia. There was not enough information to conclude this, but I still think it.

  • kenneth.holmes08
    3/02/2015 - 12:45 p.m.

    I never new common house hold pets could cause the Bubonic Plaque! I new that other rodents like rats and mice can carry diseases. I wonder if when you by a rodent of any kind the pet store warns you about the diseases they can carry. I am glad that scientists found this out because now people will be more conscious the rodents they buy.

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