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NOVA: Rat Attack

Airs Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Ken Aplin and James Lalsiamliana of Mizoram's Agriculture Dept. examine a pile of 30,000 rattails to determine the rodent species causing most of the crop damage in Mizoram.

The sun illlumines hillsides of green Melocanna bamboo in Mamit district.
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Above: The sun illlumines hillsides of green Melocanna bamboo in Mamit district.

Once every 48 years, forests of the bamboo known as Melocanna baccifera go into exuberant flower in parts of northeast India. And then, like clockwork, the event is invariably followed by a plague of black rats that spring from nowhere to spread destruction and famine in their wake. For the first time on film, NOVA and National Geographic capture this massive rat population explosion in the kind of vivid detail not possible in 1959, when the last invasion occurred.

Shot in the Indian state of Mizoram, where the massive onslaught occurred on schedule in 2008, "NOVA: Rat Attack" shows hordes of rats emerging from the forest right at harvest season, consuming entire crops and leaving subsistence farmers facing starvation. The chance to document and study this remarkable rat outbreak won't occur again for another half-century.

A black rat feasting on a Melocanna bamboo seed.
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Above: A black rat feasting on a Melocanna bamboo seed.

In the film, the world's foremost rat biologist, Ken Aplin of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (and National Geographic research grantee) arrives before the onset of the attack to try to understand the cause of the colossal infestation, which is steeped in local lore. According to tradition, the regular 48-year cycle of bamboo flowering, seeding, and death, called Mautam, spawns armies of rats, which come out of trees and underground burrows to indulge in the abundance of food.

Aplin, who has been studying rats for 10 years, has been bitten countless times but has no fear of the rodents, just sheer enthusiasm. In the film, he is literally up to his elbows in rats, reaching into burrows to pull out litters of rat pups while looking for clues as to how the invasion is progressing. "A lot of people are disgusted by rats," Aplin tells NOVA, "but I love rats. They're so successful!"

Video

Preview: NOVA: Rat Attack

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

Above: Once every 48 years, bamboo forests in Northeast India go into flower, and black rats descend upon them, like a plague. For the first time, National Geographic and NOVA and have captured this phenomenon film.