Is this cannibal rat ghost ship thing even real?

We've been hearing all day about how there's a ghost ship lurking in the waters off the coast of England, and that it's probably packed with cannibal rats. We can verify the ghost ship part. But what about the rats?

The tale of the ship is bizarre enough. The Lyubov Orlova is a cruise liner built in Yugoslavia in the 1970s. When its owners went bankrupt, they abandoned it in a Canadian port in Newfoundland. At that point, the port tried to sell the ship for scrap to the Dominican Republic, but then a storm came and washed the ship out to sea.

It's been drifting in the international waters of the Atlantic for at least a year, though Canadian authorities claim it's "safe." Now, however, it appears to be headed for the English coast. Authorities are tracking it using the ship's onboard safety beacons.

Over at the Independent, we learn:

Pim de Rhoodes, a Belgian salvage hunter who is among a number looking for the Lyubov Orlova off the UK coastline, told The Sun: "She is floating around out there somewhere.

"There will be a lot of rats and they eat each other. If I get aboard I'll have to lace everywhere with poison."

Based on this same quote from de Rhoodes, the New York Daily News embellishes:

But once aboard, the scrappers will face unimaginable horror: a demented, disease-ridden population of rats that have been feeding on each other and breeding.

Quartz calls the ship a "cannibal-rat-infested ghost ship," again basing this assessment on the quote from de Rhoodes.

Why is everybody trusting this ship scavenger guy? And what is he basing his expert opinion on? Can rats really survive by cannibalism alone for over a year?

Let's peruse some scientific journals to find out.

Apparently, de Rhoodes isn't off-base. It is common for rat mothers to kill and eat their young if their babies are disabled or marked with the wrong scent. This is a big enough issue in labs that several papers have been written about how to prevent mothers from eating their pups. Also, when rats starve they do tend to eat each other. The author of one study, in which rats were prevented from eating for a week, noted casually, "To avoid cannibalism during starvation, each rat was housed separately."

Could rats live on cannibalism for a year? Given that rats live for a few years, we're talking about one generation of rats, basically. So they could just eat all their babies, if they wanted — or they could start attacking each other. Depending on how many rats there are, I suppose it's possible that they could have made the entire journey from Canada to England by living on rat flesh alone.

But until somebody actually goes on board, we won't know for sure.