New York City scientists will pay you to study your rat infestation

A rat wanders the subway tracks in New York. 

AP / Frank Franklin II

Ever feel that rats actually run the city you live in and humans just live under their domain? 

A new study suggests that's not far from the truth. Rats are among nature's most perfectly adapted organisms, closely shadowing humans and routinely getting away with it without detection.

"City rats are among the most important but least-studied wildlife in urban environments," the team of U.S. and Australian researchers and pest control experts wrote in the Journal of Urban Ecology.

Part of the reason may be that scientists lack access to the places where the rodents are dwelling, impeding their ability to learn more about rats and the problems they cause for their human neighbors. 

In an effort to close that gap, researchers are taking a creative approach: paying for access. 

Michael H. Parsons, lead author of the paper and a visiting research scholar at Fordham University, is offering a "reward" of up to $1,000 for access to an appropriate rat-infested location in Manhattan.

In return, the homeowner will get free, confidential extermination services — once the researchers are done studying the rats.

Lacking access, scientists struggle to move the needle forward in the battle against out-of-control rat populations: they cannot track rats' movements, study their population distribution, monitor the diseases they carry, and test new extermination methods. 

Jason Munshi-South, who co-authored the study, warned that a scientific approach that's anything less than robust is sure to backfire on humans. 

"We neglect to study them at our own peril," Munshi-South, a professor of biology at Fordham University, said in a statement. "No war has ever decimated one-third of the human population. Rats have." 

Rats are the most widely accepted theory for the spread of the devastating bubonic plague in the 14th century. The plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which circulates among rodents and then spills over to humans when people are bitten by fleas the rats carry. Of course, in the Middle Ages, there was no understanding of how the disease known as the Black Death was transmitted.

Rats remain a nagging public health problem in urban environments — they contaminate food, spread a variety of illnesses, and even start fires. Numerous cities, including New York, carry out mass extermination programs for rats using poison. The city maps rat hot-spots neighborhood by neighborhood.

Earlier this year, leptospirosism, a bacterial infection most commonly spread by contact with rat urine, was blamed for killing one person and sickening two others in New York City's Bronx borough. 

Rats can also spread rat lungworm disease, a condition in which parasitic worm larvae infect people's brains.

  • Shanika Gunaratna On Twitter»

    Shanika Gunaratna covers science and technology for CBSNews.com