New giant rat species discovered in the Solomon Islands

This is an illustration of the new species Uromys vika. Image Velizar Simeonovski The Field Museum

Scientists from Chicago's Field Museum and the Solomon Island's Zaira Resource Management Area have described the vika in detail in a new paper in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Lavery eventually teamed up with John Vendi and Hikuna Judge and finally found the creature as it was running away from a fallen tree. More than half of the mammals that live there are not found anywhere else on Earth.

Vika rats can be up to four times the size of normal black rats, weighing up to a kilogram and measuring about a foot and a half from nose to tail. It's one of a few semimythological rats and rodents from around the world, including the evil Colo Colo from Chile, who hatches from an egg laid by a snake, the Doyle-ian Giant Rat of Sumatra, and the horned squirrel Ratatoskr from Norse mythology, who ferries messages up and down the World Tree.

The vika is the first rodent discovered on the Solomon Islands in 80 years, and it fits right in with the other unique mammals - such as dwarf flying fox and the Guadalcanal monkey-faced bat - that call the nation home. It also measures almost a foot-and-a-half long and spends most of its time scampering around the rainforest.

Tyrone Lavery has spent years on the lookout for a giant rat.

"When I first met with the people from Vangunu Island in the Solomons, they told me about a rat native to the island that they called vika, which lived in the trees", said Lavery.

Mammalogist Tyrone Lavery had heard rumors of a giant, possum-like rat that lived in the trees, but he was still surprised when he encountered it.

"I started to question if it really was a separate species, or if people were just calling regular, black rats 'vika, '" Lavery told The Guardian. Had vika been a ground-dwelling creature, the researchers merely had to look forward to back and left to right. When you're looking up in the trees, there's a whole new extra dimension to consider, and that makes things much harder.

The rat did not resemble any of the eight known species of rats that are native to the islands, and when he compared it to collections in museums, and checked the DNA of rat, he confirmed it indeed was a new species.

"Uromys vika is pretty spectacular - it's a big, giant rat". "As soon as I examined the specimen, I knew it was something different", says Lavery. However, on Vangunu, the nuts of the Canarium tree-galip nuts-have been found with round holes chewed into them and the interior meat removed. The problem is, Lavery says, that it's always more hard to find tree-dwelling animals.

"Vika's ancestors probably rafted to the island on vegetation, and once they got there, they evolved into this wonderfully new species, nothing like what they came from on the mainland".

Lavery said he was driven to discover the rat through both a sense of adventure and a concern for conservation.

"People have songs about them, and even children's rhymes like our 'This little piggy went to market, '" said Lavery. "The area where it was found is one of the only places left with forest that hasn't been logged", says Lavery.



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