That problem doesn’t mean what you think it means

There was a fascinating story about rats the other day. Rats are linked to many problems caused in the human population. We generally think we know what those are.

Man v rat: could the long war soon be over? Rats spread disease, decimate crops and very occasionally eat people alive. For centuries, we have struggled to find an effective way of controlling their numbers. Until now … by Jordan Kisner

But just maybe the real problem doesn’t mean what we think it means and there is a more successful way to approach it.

“As recently as 1994 there was a major recurrence of bubonic plague in India, an unpleasant flashback to the 14th century, when that rat-borne illness killed 25 million people in five years. Collectively, rats are responsible for more human death than any other mammal on earth.”

It turns out that yes there are lots of problems associated with rats that impact on the human population but the one that is not so obvious is how very quickly a rat can breed.

“A male and female left to their own devices for one year – the average lifespan of a city rat – can beget 15,000 descendants.”

Let that number sink in for a moment. That breeding capability is remarkable and is the real reason that controlling the rat population is so difficult. It doesn’t help that wherever humans are there is also a lot of wasted food that keeps the rats in top breeding condition.

“How is it that we can send robots to Mars, build the internet, keep alive infants born so early that their skin isn’t even fully made – and yet remain unable to keep rats from threatening our food supplies, biting our babies, and appearing in our toilet bowls?

“Frankly, rodents are the most successful species,” Loretta Mayer told me recently. “After the next holocaust, rats and Twinkies will be the only things left.”

Mayer is a biologist, and she contends that the rat problem is actually a human problem, a result of our foolish choices and failures of imagination. In 2007, she co-founded SenesTech, a biotech startup that offers the promise of an armistice in a conflict that has lasted thousands of years. The concept is simple: rat birth control.
The rat’s primary survival skill, as a species, is its unnerving rate of reproduction. Female rats ovulate every four days, copulate dozens of times a day and remain fertile until they die. (Like humans, they have sex for pleasure as well as for procreation.) This is how you go from two to 15,000 in a single year. When poison or traps thin out a population, they mate faster until their numbers regenerate. Conversely, if you can keep them from mating, colonies collapse in weeks and do not rebound.
Solving the rat problem by putting them on the pill sounds ridiculous. Until recently no pharmaceutical product existed that could make rats infertile, and even if it had, there was still the question of how it could be administered. But if such a thing were to work, the impact could be historic. Rats would die off without the need for poison, radar or coyotes.
SenesTech, which is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, claims to have created a liquid that will do exactly that.”

The story is much longer and is well worth reading the full version. Disruptive thinking often comes from situations like this example. In this story

“After three years of research and development, they had a product that worked and did not harm other animals.

What is fascinating to me about the story is the idea that we often think we know what a problem is and we can come up with all kinds of ways to manage that.

In the story of the “rat problem” we have managed at times but ultimately as long as there are a few rats left they can breed their way to a whole new population in an exceptionally short time.

I’m sure there are other problems that we deal with daily where a change of perspective might show us that the real problem is different to what we think it is and if we can solve that it could change everything.