A New York exterminator inspects an alley for rats.

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Ever get the feeling there are just as many rats in the City as people? It's a sentiment most New York residents have shared for many years, but Columbia PhD student Jonathan Auerbach took that "urban myth" to task, unveiling a new study that hypothesizes there are actually closer to 2 million rats in New York City.

Participating in a competition sponsored by the Royal Statistical Society of London, Auerbach won the top prize for his extensive look at the City's rat problem, an undertaking he explored for a multitude of reasons. Not only are rats a nuisance, says Auerbach in his study, they're also a "threat to public health," spreading diseases and causing "26% of cable breaks and 25% of fires of unknown origin."

In order to come to his conclusion, Auerbach closely examined the City's history of reporting rats and built an active estimate based on the number of NYC lots containing rats (roughly 40,500). Auerbach summates that with a standard 40-50 rats belonging to each colony based in a lot where a rat was reported, New York City is home to roughly 2 million rats, give or take 150,000. In fact, for the 8 million estimate - one rat per person - to be true, each colony would have to support 180 rats.

Still, Auerbach doesn't see his study as hard science, but rather as "part of an ongoing investigation." He admits, "It is always a possibility that one big lot will support multiple colonies of rats or that large reservoirs of rats exist and are never reported to 311."

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