The Norway Rat is a Brown Rat and it is Not From Norway

The brown rat, or perhaps more commonly known as the Norway rat, has been successful in populating all continents across the globe, with the exception of Antarctica; and is considered the dominant rat in Europe and much of North America. This makes it the most successful mammal on the planet, after human beings. Indeed, with rare exceptions the brown rat lives wherever humans live, particularly in urban areas.

It is believed that the English naturalist and author John Berkenhout, is most likely responsible for popularizing the name “Norwegian rat.” Despite the fact that no brown rat had entered Norway at the time, Berkenhout believing that this rodent had migrated to England from Norwegian ships; in 1728. Circa 1850, a more correct understanding of the rat’s origin began to develop, when others began to question and challenge the common assertions. The British novelist Charles Dickens acknowledged the assumed name in the June 2nd 1888 edition of his weekly journal, All the Year Round, writing:

Now there is a mystery about the native country of the best known species of rat, the common brown rat. It is frequently called, in books and otherwise, the Norway rat, and it is said to have been imported into this country in a ship-load of timber from Norway. Against this hypothesis stands the fact that when the brown rat had become common in this country, it was unknown in Norway, although there was a small animal like a rat, but really a lemming, which made its home there.

Although the assumptions about the origin of this pest control problem have not been entirely correct, by the 20th century it was widely accepted by naturalists that the brown rat did not originate in Norway. Instead, it was established that this species of rodent came from central Asia and (likely) China. Despite this revelation, the species’ common “Norway rat” name, is still used today.


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