Questions for ‘Rats can be chroniclers of human history’

a black and white rat standing on a stack of books has one book open in front of it

People might not like to see rats, but their habits — and their love of people's stuff — mean scientists can study the animals to learn more about our own history.

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To accompany feature “Rats can be chroniclers of human history


Before Reading:

1. Have you ever had a collection of something? What did you collect and why? How did you choose the items to include in the collection?

2. Many species of animals coexist with people, in our cities and sometimes even our homes. List at least two species that people live with intentionally and two that are uninvited.

During Reading:

1.  Why might a scientist or historian study the contents of a rat’s nest?

2.  Where did the rats living in Colonial Williamsburg originally come from? What time period can historians learn about from their nests?

3.  Why is Matthew Webster glad that rats don’t venture very far from their nests?

4.  Why do rats tend to move with groups of people?

5.  What does a phylogeographer study? How about a zooarchaeologist — and a paleoecologist?

6.  What has Emily Puckett learned about peoples’ movements by studying rat genetics?

7.  How might rats help archaeologists decide where to excavate to look for ancient city remains?

8.  What is a midden? What might a scientist find in one that can help them learn about past environments — and the people and animals in them?

9.  What are asphalt seeps? Why are they useful places to study past organisms?

10.  What was noteworthy about the rat poop Alexis Mychajliw studied from Rancho La Brea? What is one thing she and her colleagues have learned by studying it?

After Reading:

1.  Rats are less choosy about what to collect than people might be. Why is this useful to scientists today? What types of things might scientists be able to learn from rats’ collections that they might not learn about from studying artifacts collected by people? Some aspects to consider include who might collect objects and what types of objects people may decide have value.

2.  Many types of scientists combine multiple areas of science in their research, such as combining the study of ecology and the study of the past. In this way, they can learn about ecosystems in ancient environments. What are two areas of science that you might like to combine? What are some questions about the world that you could explore with your new field of research?