The Huffington Post reports that biologists such as the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies’ Rick Ostfeld have warned that if Hurricane Sandy’s waters — which have penetrated New York’s expansive subway system — end up displacing rats instead of killing them, the animals could spread a variety of pathogens through bites and waste:
“Rats are incredibly good swimmers,” said Ostfeld. “And they can climb.”
In other words, Sandy is unlikely to knock off the resilient rodents, but rather displace them.
According to Ostfeld, this could result in increased risk of infectious diseases carried by urban rats, including leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonella, and even the plague.
“One of things we know can exacerbate disease is massive dispersal,” he added. “Rats are highly social individuals and live in a fairly stable social structure. If this storm disturbs that, rats could start infesting areas they never did before.”
And it’s not only the bite of a rat than can transmit disease. Rodent feces and urine can spread hantavirus, for example. Still, Ostfeld suggested that the huge volume of water Sandy is expected to bring should dilute the pathogens and lessen risks to public health.
Luckily for New York residents, all signs suggest that Sandy’s sheer force may have killed off the critters rather than move them up to the city streets. One spokesman for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene told Forbes that he has “not seen an increase in rats above ground caused by Hurricane Sandy,” and several rodentology experts have suggested that the storm likely killed off vulnerable, younger rats, thereby actually reducing New York’s overall rat population.