Word of Mouth - Marmots & the bubonic plague
This week Garry has been looking at killers. The greatest killer of our species - homo sapiens - are not those with sharp serrated teeth. Our greatest mass murderer so far, is the female mosquito. They’ve killed billions of us. They have a little blood feast and then, if you’re unlucky, leave one of their many calling cards - malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, encephalitis and more recently the Zika virus.
That’s insects, but when it comes to killer mammals there’s one culprit who wins hands down and he is one of Switzerland’s best known animals. It’s the marmot, that cuddly member of the squirrel family.
"What!" "Quoi!" I hear you exclaim. Well let Garry explain...
In the 14th century the Great Death later known as the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague killed one in three people, across a huge swathe of Europe and central Asia. Final death toll was about 75 million. In some regions of Italy, Spain and France the death toll was as high at 75 per cent of the population.
Scientists have traced the disease back to the Mongolian marmot – which is one of five marmot species. The Swiss marmot is known as the alpine marmot.
The Mongolian marmot is susceptible to a lung infection caused by a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis which is more commonly known as the bubonic plague. The bacterium is then carried by rats and their fleas and passed on to humans.
Both marmots and humans suffer similar symptoms when infected – glands under the armpits and groin become black and swollen. And well … it’s all pretty horrible and down-hill from there.
Today we still die from this disease. There was an outbreak in India in 1994 – 56 people died.
In 2015 in the USA there were 15 cases and four deaths.
The plague, if diagnosed early, can be treated with antibiotics. For this we need to thank a Swiss – from Canton Vaud – one courageous Alexandra Yersin born in 1863 in Aubonne, today best known for its flat-pack furniture. In 1894 he discovered the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague, which was later named in his honour - Yersinia pestis. But that’s another story...