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Rat Att-att-att-attack! (You oughtta know by now...)
February 24, 2009 4:11 PM   Subscribe

"Once every 48 years, forests of the bamboo known as Melocanna baccifera go into exuberant flower in parts of northeast India [a process called Mautam]. And then, like clockwork, the event is invariably followed by a plague of black rats that spring from nowhere to spread destruction and famine in their wake. For the first time on film, NOVA and National Geographic capture this massive rat population explosion in the kind of vivid detail not possible in 1959, when the last invasion occurred." Airing tonight at 8PM on your local PBS station, or catch it online here beginning tomorrow.
posted by billysumday (47 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Uh, rat attacke? Actually, I think I'll skip it.
posted by charlesminus at 4:16 PM on February 24, 2009


Thank you, I am happy I caught this post in time to watch.
posted by bunnycup at 4:19 PM on February 24, 2009


Even though rats give me a mild case of the icks, this looks pretty interesting! Yet another reason to love the weird and wonderful NOVA.
posted by sarabeth at 4:21 PM on February 24, 2009


Those rats look brown to me.
posted by delmoi at 4:23 PM on February 24, 2009


Those rats look brown to me.

Those are the ones deemed cute enough for the marketing material.
posted by pokermonk at 4:26 PM on February 24, 2009


"A lot of people are disgusted by rats," Aplin tells NOVA, "but I love rats. They're so successful!"


posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:32 PM on February 24, 2009


Too bad my local PBS affiliate doesn't seem to be broadcasting in HD yet. I'm a mile from their station and I can't get the channel.
posted by sciurus at 4:36 PM on February 24, 2009


I get a weekly e-mail from my PBS affiliate alerting me to "Special programming to watch (and listen to) this week." Does it even mention the NOVA program? No! You'd think a twice-per-century plague of black rats would warrant some kind of heads-up. Thanks, billysumday!
posted by steef at 4:37 PM on February 24, 2009


I'm not sure I want to see rats "spread destruction and famine in their wake" for my entertainment, but I'm picky like that.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:50 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Every night, throughout the United States of America, in countless grimy little beer-soaked rock clubs, there are rat attacks that neither NOVA nor National Geographic has ever documented.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:53 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


What about for your education, MSTPT?
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:54 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cicadas work on 13- and 17-year cycles (large co-primes) to avoid predators locking in a short cycle to capitalize on both species. A 48-year cycle is 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 3 - it's practically guaranteed to flower in the same year as anything else in a periodic cycle. What's the evolutionary strategy this plant is optimizing for?
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:54 PM on February 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


What about for your education, MSTPT?

Oh is that what this is then? No, for my education, I can read about how thousands of people end up starving because of the rat plague. I don't need to "catch it online".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:02 PM on February 24, 2009


I'm guessing the plants haven't optimized for much of anything except successfully spreading their seeds around every 48 years. Since that's been working so well for them, maybe they feel that they ARE optimized. If you disagree with their schedule, I suggest you take it up with them. 'Coming soon to PBS: People Who Argue About Evolutionary Optimization Strategies With Bamboo Plants.' I *know* I'd watch that!
posted by jamstigator at 5:03 PM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh is that what this is then? No, for my education, I can read about how thousands of people end up starving because of the rat plague. I don't need to "catch it online".

Some people just find the world interesting. No need to get all angry about it.
posted by billysumday at 5:05 PM on February 24, 2009


Some people just find the world interesting. No need to get all angry about it.

To clarify: I'm not angry about it, billy, and not wanting to catch the commencement of the famine-inducing rat plague live online doesn't mean I don't find the world interesting. I was just putting in my two cents there, and then answering a question directed at me.

Nice Billy Joel reference, by the way.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:12 PM on February 24, 2009


Nice Billy Joel reference, by the way.

I totally messed it up, though, now that I think about it. Should have been Rat Attack-ack-ack-ack. Next time I'll nail the landing.
posted by billysumday at 5:15 PM on February 24, 2009


Note to self: Asking an idle curious question will set jamstigator off. Be sure to do so in the future when possible.
posted by 0xFCAF at 5:17 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


goddman, I need to buy a new antenna.
posted by GuyZero at 5:19 PM on February 24, 2009


I totally messed it up, though, now that I think about it. Should have been Rat Attack-ack-ack-ack. Next time I'll nail the landing.

It was clear enough to me that it was a "Moving Out" reference, FWIW. But really, when you're talking about plagues and misery, any Billy Joel song will do.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:23 PM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


SWEET. Thanks for posting this, I would've missed it otherwise.
posted by danny the boy at 5:27 PM on February 24, 2009


I feel cheated. So far we have not seen an actual swarm of rats. They better be saving that up for the end.
posted by Falconetti at 5:49 PM on February 24, 2009


Millions of rats. With red beady eyes.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:52 PM on February 24, 2009


Should have been Rat Attack-ack-ack-ack.

Actually, you're still leaving off some acks. Needs two more.

And thanks a million, really, for getting that stupid fucking song stuck in my head.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:56 PM on February 24, 2009


I'm not sure I want to see rats "spread destruction and famine in their wake" for my entertainment, but I'm picky like that.

I'm almost certain that they're not doing it for your entertainment.
posted by sfenders at 6:02 PM on February 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


A 48-year cycle is 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 3 - it's practically guaranteed to flower in the same year as anything else in a periodic cycle. What's the evolutionary strategy this plant is optimizing for?

Well, if you're a plant and you want to get rid of all the other competition you create a scenario where you lay the groundwork for a predatory explosion knowing full well that your seeds will germinate before the 4th wave or rat explosion. Rats devestate all your competition and your bamboo seedlings can grow, free from overcrowding. The dead rats then fertilize your seeds. So unlike the cicada who uses the large primes for predatory avoidance, the 48 year is some sort of maximum for attracting predators, wiping out your competition in the process. Wow number theory and biology is really cool.
posted by geoff. at 6:06 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


This happens in Northwestern Burma (Myanmar) as well - that particular species of bamboo is common to the entire region bordering the Indian Northeastern Hillstates.

Despite the fact that this twice-a-century cycle is very well known, the junta has done absolutely fuck all to prepare for the humanitarian tragedy that results from the farmers having all their crops eaten by the rat plague. The result is that the desperately poor peasants are forced to leave their land & seek refuge in India - that famous land of untold opportunity for all.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:13 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


So I was watching it, and twittered the following:
Aw look at the little baby rats! How adorab--AUGH!! Holy jesus christ what the fuck PBS?!
Fair warning: When the program first shows adorable pink and squirming little rat pups? Be ready for the momma rat to come in and ruin everything. Caught me completely off guard.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 6:14 PM on February 24, 2009


The locals need to call this woman for some assistance.
posted by jamaro at 6:21 PM on February 24, 2009


by any chance, has rupert murdoch bought PBS? i just tuned in to watch NOVA, expecting to see some big brown rats and found instead...barack obama delivering a speech on the economy.
posted by kitchenrat at 6:38 PM on February 24, 2009


I see what you did there.
posted by billysumday at 6:40 PM on February 24, 2009


Cicadas work on 13- and 17-year cycles (large co-primes) to avoid predators locking in a short cycle to capitalize on both species. A 48-year cycle is 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 3 - it's practically guaranteed to flower in the same year as anything else in a periodic cycle. What's the evolutionary strategy this plant is optimizing for?
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:54 PM on February 24


What an excellent insight about the significance of the highly composite nature of 48, 0xFCAF!

The bamboo are pursuing a strategy of totally glutting their seed predators, to the point that even rats cannot reproduce fast enough to eat all the seeds before a sufficient number take root and grow beyond the point that the seed predators will want to eat them.

If they can sync up with any other plant producing seeds periodically, it will be good for both, because it will increase the number of surviving seeds for both.

I suppose cicadas don't do it that way because they are competing for almost exactly the same niche, whereas the bamboo are cooperating with plants in different niches. Also, during the 48 years, if the bamboo around here are any guide, they reproduce by sending out runners, so I bet most of the bamboo in a given area are a clone, so that they don't need to compete with each other.

I have a feeling the strategy has depths that are eluding me at the moment, too.
posted by jamjam at 6:49 PM on February 24, 2009


The result is that the desperately poor peasants are forced to leave their land & seek refuge in India - that famous land of untold opportunity for all.

:-)

The linked wikipedia article on Mautam hints at it,
"recalling this event, [...] warnings based on folk traditions were dismissed as superstition by the Government of Assam, which then ruled what is now the state of Mizoram. It has been estimated that around two million rats were killed and collected by the locals, [...] [h]owever, [...] preparations by the government to avoid a famine were limited." )
but the last episode in 1959 triggered off a set of extremely unfortunate political events that led to, perhaps the only time when the Indian Airforce bombed Indian citizens on Indian soil:
"In the afternoon of March 4 1966, a flock of jet fighters hovered over Aizawl and dropped bombs leaving a number of houses in flames. The next day, a more excessive bombing took place for several hours which left most houses in Dawrpui and Chhingaveng area in ashes," recollected 62-year-old Rothangpuia in Aizawl
By the time the next Mautam occurred, though, events had turned a full circle; the former insurgents achieved civilian power, the organization's second-in-command the newly-formed state's chief minister. The Army came back to the Lushai and Mizo hills, but finally trained its guns on the real culprits, rats.

And yes, there appears to be a lot of cross-border sympathy for improverished brethren in Chin hills. Some significant love from Burma as well, mostly for the way the fight for self-determination had panned out successfully; indeed, Mizoram may be considered to be one of the better governed states in the Indian Union, with the second highest literacy rate for any state and minimal violence that blights the other states in the region.

Indeed, quite a lot of ethnicity-based loyalties out there, so much so that I was told that border controls are fairly informal; the international border routinely runs through communities, and Indian and Burmese nationals can enter each other's territory for a distance of up to 20 kilometres without immigration formalities, a relaxed attitude that simply does not exist on the other borders there, those with Bangladesh and China. (Nor with the rest of India, ironically, even Indian citizens not resident in those states need permits to enter the state)

In essence, migrants from Burma perhaps would find it easier to move to, and find acceptance in, India than those from Bangladesh, who form the bulk of the estimated 20 million illegal immigrants in India.
posted by the cydonian at 7:29 PM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


I wish this were NGC only and not NOVA, cause it's gonna be 53 minutes of hype, not much science, and then the big reveal will be about a minute of 'wow rats everywhere'. I stopped watching NOVA about 6 yrs ago because they take an hour to tell a 5 minute 'story'. Meh.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:47 PM on February 24, 2009


Goddamnit, the San Francisco PBS station isn't going to show that episode! WTF they're showing some "brain fitness" bullshit! AUGH my rats!
posted by danny the boy at 7:53 PM on February 24, 2009


I'm guessing the plants haven't optimized for much of anything except successfully spreading their seeds around every 48 years. Since that's been working so well for them, maybe they feel that they ARE optimized. If you disagree with their schedule, I suggest you take it up with them. 'Coming soon to PBS: People Who Argue About Evolutionary Optimization Strategies With Bamboo Plants.' I *know* I'd watch that!

Superlative.

posted by five fresh fish at 7:54 PM on February 24, 2009


Is anyone else here reminded of the cover story from the May 1988 issue of Spy? You do have to admire them because they are really successful.
posted by whuppy at 8:03 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Like rats? See "Rat".
posted by No Robots at 9:07 PM on February 24, 2009


"Full of babies" *creepy smile* "Full of babies"

OK, the creepy rat scientist guy is really creepy.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:18 PM on February 24, 2009


Yeah, but how many of those rats will be a genius in the kitchen?
posted by bwg at 3:55 AM on February 25, 2009


Also: paging Crispin Glover; you have a call on the black courtesy phone.
posted by bwg at 3:56 AM on February 25, 2009


The whole concept (as nicely put by geoff) is fascinating but I think I will take a pass on the rat attack.
posted by caddis at 7:22 AM on February 25, 2009


indeed, Mizoram may be considered to be one of the better governed states in the Indian Union, with the second highest literacy rate for any state and minimal violence that blights the other states in the region.

Isn't the region with the highest literacy Kerala? Both Kerala and Mizoram are predominantly Christian. Anyone have an idea why literacy would be the highest in the Christian states of India? Something to do with the church encouraging people to read the Bible? (Not trying to start shit here, just curious).
posted by Falconetti at 10:37 AM on February 25, 2009


when you're talking about plagues and misery, any Billy Joel song will do

Best comment.
posted by mike3k at 11:09 AM on February 25, 2009


Falconetti: no idea about Mizoram, but a Keralan once explained the high literacy rate there as being due to a combination of two factors:

One - Keralans apparently make up a disproportionate number of Indians who go to earn the relatively big money in the Gulf, so people are richer there, on average, than elsewhere in India.

Two - Communist / Socialist government policies, extending education widely.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:11 PM on February 25, 2009


Isn't the region with the highest literacy Kerala? Both Kerala and Mizoram are predominantly Christian

Actually, while Kerala has a long tradition of Christian worship going back all the way to St Thomas the Apostle, and while Christians form a substantially larger part of the state population, it isn't pre-dominantly so; "only" 19% or so of the state is Christian. Other states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya and, indeed, Mizoram, have higher Christian populations, often above 80%.

I have a much simpler explanation for high literacy rates: geographical spread. If you look at a literacy rates by districts, there's a very high correlation between distance from centers of governance and low-literacy; that is to say, the further a district is from a certain 'center of governance', the less literate it appears to be. This is at its most dramatic if you look at the Delhi - Lucknow belt; while Delhi per se has a very healthy 80% literacy rate, the further you go away from Delhi, the less literate a district is, until you reach either the capital of the neighbouring state, Uttar Pradesh, or the Chandigarh- Shimla belt, where the two cities share _four_ seats of provincial power between them (Chandigarh is the capital of both Punjab and Haryana, and is a self-ruled union territory of its own).

You can see a variance on this rule in peninsular India, where the bigger a district is, the less literate it appears to be. The big orange district in the south of Chattisgarh, Bastar district, is a prime example of this, as is Mahboobnagar, another big swatch of orange immediately below Hyderabad. Again, you could argue that distance from centers of governance, the district headquarters in this case, is a major factor. [The map around Hyderabad is a _tad_ misleading, in that Hyderabad is a district by itself and actually has the highest literacy rate for the state. Basically, the green colour there is obscured by the star :-) ]

Do note that the target is 75% literacy as a threshold. That is to say, green is good. Mizoram's singular achievement, then, is not that it has a few green oases in a sea of orange or red, but that it has a _sustained_ green; not merely green, but bright green. To take a rugby metaphor, it's the difference between scoring a try and conversion.

Incidentally, Mizoram is #1 now apparently, having beaten Kerala by a few decimals. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 8:48 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mahaboobnagar sounds like a nice place to live.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:55 PM on February 25, 2009


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