Rumors of a terrifying “super rat” plagued New Yorkers with a fresh new fear immediately after Superstorm Sandy. Predictions of oversize rodents emerging from the sewers and subways, hungrier, faster and more aggressive than their predecessors, fueled nightmares across the city.
The theory: Sandy would wipe out New York’s weakest rats, the ones that couldn’t swim hard enough or escape quickly enough from the floods. Those left standing after the storm would be the population’s strongest rats, inevitably breeding a new generation of “super rat.”
In short, the most basic evolutionary principle at work: survival of the fittest.
Now, more than a year after the storm, are there “super rats” scampering among us? Have there been sightings of abnormally large vermin, more reported bites, an uptick in the average rat size?
Rest easy — the littlest New Yorkers are exactly the same as they always have been, according to urban rodentologist Bob Corrigan, who has monitored the city’s rat population for years.
“Rats have been exposed to many natural disasters in different parts of Earth long before our cities were here,” Corrigan told Metro. “If they evolved each time to a stronger ‘super’ rat, by now we would be dealing with a virtually indestructible mammal.”
Lucky for New Yorkers, rats are just as destructible as the rest of us.
“Some rats, just like humans, dogs, cats, cattle, etc. were lucky enough to escape Earth’s natural disasters. Some weren’t,” he said.
Robert Sullivan, author of “Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants,” tends to agree, despite the amazing Hollywood potential of the “super rat” urban legend.
“All rats are super. I don’t believe in a ‘super rat,'” Sullivan joked.
“I love rat theories, but very few of them hold water,” he added. “When Sandy hit, people predicted hordes of rats would come racing out of the tunnels and attack us. That didn’t happen, and it wouldn’t happen because hordes of rats don’t live in the tunnels. They live where people are and where people feed them scraps of bagels and potato chips.”
That’s not to say the rat population wasn’t affected by Sandy. Scores of them were likely wiped out, as their bloated remains strewn along the city’s shores later suggested.
“Those that were in rat burrows close to the water’s edge perished,” Corrigan confirmed. “Sandy, just like Katrina in New Orleans several years ago, wiped out thousands of rats. They simply drown in their ground burrows because they could not get out. Many other rats were swept away by strong currents down in sewers, subways, basements and the like, and were crushed up against walls and gratings and killed in this manner.”
Another commonly reported concern was the spread of disease from the rats that did survive by scampering to new, drier grounds. That’s another myth, according to Sullivan, who insisted rat problems are directly correlated with economics.
“Neighborhoods with limited economic resources and limited political power are more likely to suffer from the plagues that rats bring,” he said. “The ones that suffered during Sandy are going to have the same rats they did before; it’s just going to be worse.”
Kery Bruzzo, vice president of New York-based Green Earth Pest Control, said his company fielded countless calls from people ahead of Sandy reporting a sudden rat infestation for the first time, suggesting the rodents’ survival instincts were kicking in as they tried to flee before the storm.
“That’s when we really knew the broadness of the impact that the storm had on NYC residents in regards to pests,” Bruzzo recalled. “Rodents began looking for higher ground a few days before the storm struck.”
Bruzzo, who said he has seen rats the size of a football in his career, acknowledged that while the post-storm rat size hasn’t dramatically increased, the minds of today’s population could be sharper having survived the storm.
“Rats are naturally neophobic and avoid new changes to their immediate surroundings and environment,” he said. “If a rat does happen to get trapped but manages to escape or eats a non-fatal dose of rodenticide, they will avoid these items at all costs.”
So what’s worse, New York: A bigger rat — or a clever rat?
Follow Cassandra Garrison on Twitter: @CassieAtMetro