The mysterious and elusive rodent rumored to live in the Solomon Islands rainforest has been found after years of searching.
It sounds like a character out of a DreamWorks film; a foot-and-a-half tall coconut-cracking rodent wiseguy who lives in the trees and is rarely seen by people.
Well, the local people of the Solomon Islands have seen the creatures for years, but the super rat has remained elusive to western scientists hoping to classify it as a new species.
Mammalogist Tyrone Lavery had been hearing rumors of the giant rat ever since his first trip to the Solomon Islands in 2010. After years of seeking – and in a race against the deforestation gobbling up the rat's habitat – Lavery, along with John Vendi and Hikuna Judge, finally found it.
"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, a post-doctoral researcher at The Field Museum in Chicago and the lead author of the paper detailing the rat's discovery. "I was excited because I had just started my Ph.D., and I'd read a lot of books about people who go on adventures and discover new species."
But years of rat sleuthing returned nary a new species. "I started to question if it really was a separate species, or if people were just calling regular black rats 'vika,'" said Lavery. Part of the problem was being able to search in the canopy. "If you're looking for something that lives on the ground, you're only looking in two dimensions, left to right and forward and backward. If you're looking for something that can live in 30-foot-tall trees, then there's a whole new dimension that you need to search," he said.
But then fate intervened and delivered a rat to Lavery; one of the rats was discovered trying to escape from a felled tree, an event that the rat did not survive. "As soon as I examined the specimen, I knew it was something different," said Lavery. "There are only eight known species of native rat from the Solomon Islands, and looking at the features on its skull, I could rule out a bunch of species right away."
After a thorough analysis, Lavery confirmed that the big guy was indeed a new species, which he named Uromys vika in honor of the local name for the rat. "This project really shows the importance of collaborations with local people," said Lavery.
Vika can be more than four times that size of a typical rat we might find in the urban alleys of the United States. Weighing in at up to 2 pounds and measuring 18 inches long … these rats are huge. The rat's curious traits and behaviors have come about because of the isolated nature of its remote island home. "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," explains Lavery.
Sadly for the vika, it will now require a quick designation as Critically Endangered, due to its rarity and the threat posed by logging to its rainforest habitat. According to National Geographic, "Timber companies have logged 90 percent of the Solomon Island's trees, and on Vangunu, the rats are squeezed into remaining patches totaling just 31 square miles. (The single rat in the study was found in Zaira, a community that's against logging, Lavery says.)"
"It's getting to the stage for this rat that, if we hadn't discovered it now, it might never have gotten discovered. The area where it was found is one of the only places left with forest that hasn't been logged," said Lavery.
In the DreamWorks version of the story, the animals prevail, after some mayhem and a few musical numbers of course; let's hope the future of the vika follows a similar plotline.
Via The Guardian