Excerpt from the book Animals Evolution Avoided. This book describes 40 animals that ought to exist but don’t, because I made them up.
The Howling Rat of Brindisi is a semi-mythical creature connected with the legendary ability of St Francis of Assisi to talk to animals. Brindisi is a port on the east coast of Italy and has been receiving ships from all over the world for centuries. In olden times, each ship that berthed would inevitably disgorge a certain number of rats who would be anxious for shore leave after a perilous voyage across the sea.
Almost inevitably rats brought diseases with them. Most rats also brought a new strain of genes to add to the gene pool in Brindisi. The rats would breed and new characteristics would inevitably appear. Some rats, whose ancestors had come from the Black Sea, would be able to survive for weeks at a time without food, because their forefathers have survived the long trip from the Crimea on board ships that had little food for the crew, let alone the rats on board.
Other rats would have sailed across from North Africa, a particularly rough and stormy trip, where the ship would be tossed around for days at a time by the savage seas. It was on voyages like this where baby rats had to be particularly vocal, so that their parents would find them again after going on a hunt for food. These baby rats learned to howl in a ghostly way, making the sailors believe their ship was possessed by evil spirits. This howling was effective because the sailors prayed to God for salvation rather than looking for the source of the noise. The sailors believed the spirits were of drowned sailors coming back to haunt them.
Some of the rats in Brindisi, those descended from North African rats, carried on this howling on dry land and used to howl whenever they were hungry, causing fear and loathing within the local human population. When hunting the rats failed, the local bishop of Brindisi asked St Francis to come to his city and talk to the rats.
St Francis obliged. He asked the rats to please stop howling. The rats said they were sorry, but they were only howling because they were hungry. The rats suggested to St Francis that the humans in Brindisi should throw food scraps into the fields to the west of the town at 6 a.m. in the morning. The rats would eat the food and they wouldn’t be hungry and then they wouldn’t howl. This is what the townsfolk did at the request of St Francis and sure enough the howling problem went away although the rats themselves remained and grew sleek on the food provided.