PAUL D STEWART / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY PAUL D STEWART / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Woodcut Illustration of the black rat Rattus rattus, from Volume 1 Conrad Gesner's 1551 Historiae Animalium (here in his Icones Animalium 1560). The black rat came to Europe from Asia about 2000 years ago. The black rat's fleas are believed to have carried plague (Yersinia pestis) to human victims in medieval times. Conrad Gesner, the greatest naturalist of his age, was himself killed by the plague in 1565. He was said to have asked to be taken to his library to die among his books. The black rat was largely replaced by the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) in the 18th century but it is noted that Gesner was also one of the earliest to note that species in Europe.
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