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Saturday, November 20, 2010

cut copy paste from website but fuck this rat plague would suck anywhere

The local farmers call it a flood; an inundation that happens every 50 years.

Others believe it to be an act of God, an inevitability.

It isn't water flooding the precious farmland in north-eastern India, but rats.

A once in a generation, gigantic plague of rats, that ruins crops and leaves people starving.

A rat army so big, so mythical, that until now some scientists did not believe it was real.

This explosion in the rodent population, leading to swarms of hungry pests, is caused by a glut in the food supply, namely bamboo seeds, researchers have confirmed.

And it is a perfect example of how the simple relationship between two apparently innocuous species, a tall grass and a tiny rodent, can turn the ecology of a whole region upside down: wiping out wildlife, destroying agriculture and leaving people destitute.

Worse, scientists suspect that climate change may create even bigger rat armies in the future.

Bamboo carpet

Map of affected region

Bamboo forest covers more than 26,000 square kilometres throughout the north-eastern state of Mizoram, extending into the Chin Hills of Burma and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

This species of bamboo (Melcocanna baccifera) is invaluable for farmers whose entire livelihood is based on what they can grow.

It provides a building material, clothing and even food - in the form of bamboo shoots.

Ecologically though, it is an aggressive plant that has annihilated its competition, and carpeted the area.

Approximately every 50 years, though, that carpet of forest dies off.

Whatever the environmental conditions, an internal clock signals to each plant that it is time to flower, set seed and die.

Bamboo forest (Image: SPL)

Bamboo forests cover 26,000 square kilometres of the region

"It's a way for the bamboo to ensure that the seeds survive," explains Steve Belmain, an ecologist from Greenwich University in London.

"But when the bamboo seed falls - you end up with 80 tonnes of seed per hectare on the ground.

"That's 80 tonnes of food just lying there waiting to be eaten."

For Dr Belmain and his colleagues, the most recent bamboo flowering, which began in 2004 and will continue to 2011, provided a unique opportunity to study an event that only occurs every half century.

"Before this, all we had was anecdotes from 50 years ago," he told BBC News.

"It had become a legend - many people who live in the area now weren't alive during the last outbreak."

'Rat armies'

It is only now that scientists have accepted that the "bamboo masting" is the trigger for the outbreaks.

The infrequency and scale of the event rendered it somewhat mythical.

"The many fantastic stories make it much harder for scientists to take it seriously and separate fact from fiction," says Dr Belmain.

When his colleagues interviewed the communities in the Hill Tracts, some people talked about "rat armies" that appear to work together.

And many believed the rat plagues to be an act of God.

Dead rats collected in the  Ayeyarwaddy Delta in 2009

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