For hundreds of years they have been blamed for causing and spreading the Black Death, or plague, but now it seems it might not have been entirely their fault.
A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that gerbils from Asia may have played a larger part in the repeated outbreaks of the dreaded disease that killed millions.
The Black Death arrived in Europe in 1347 and outbreaks continued for 400 years. Scientists previously believed this was because the disease was thriving among rats.
The latest study suggests climate conditions make it more likely that the giant Asian gerbil was responsible for allowing the Black Death to thrive for so long.
Prof Nils Christian Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, told the BBC: “We show that wherever there were good conditions for gerbils and fleas in central Asia, some years later the bacteria shows up in harbour cities in Europe and then spreads across the continent.
“If we’re right, we’ll have to rewrite that part of history.”
Rats are commonly thought of as dirty pests, but according to the RSPCA they are actually clean and sociable animals and can make very rewarding pets.
They were given a brief chance of popularity during the ‘80s with the rise of popular children’s TV character Roland Rat and then again with the film Ratatouille in 2007.
However, most of the time they get a very negative reputation. Maybe it’s about time we gave rats a chance!