Legendary giant rat of Solomon Islands finally sighted

The Vangunu Giant Rat, Uromys vika, is no longer legend, but scientific fact according to a report in the Journal of Mammalogy last week.

Locals living on the island of Vangunu in the Solomon Islands sing songs about vika, a giant, tree-dwelling rat that can crack open coconuts with its teeth. But scientists had never seen it.

Tyrone Lavery, a conservation ecologist at The University of Queensland and The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, searched for this rat for years. But the closest he got was a mysterious dropping found on the forest floor that contained the hair of some unidentified species of rodent.

Now the Vangunu Giant Rat is no longer legend, but scientific fact. Hikuna Judge, a ranger at the Zaira Resource Management Area on the island, found an injured specimen scampering away from a felled tree. He and Lavery reported this new species, Uromys vika, in the Journal of Mammalogy last week. It’s the first new rat species discovered on the islands in about 80 years.

Last year, New York City residents reported more than 17,000 rat sightings, but they can breathe a sigh of relief that none were the giant rat of Vangunu. Uromys vika can weigh more than 2 pounds and stretch up to a foot and a half from nose to tail. Its ears are small, and its feet are wide, to help it maneuver among the branches in the forest canopy where it lives. The rat’s smooth tail is particularly special, covered in tiny scales surrounded by large areas of flesh. Think opossum, or squirrel, but more ratty, and very, very, rare.

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Its method of eating conjures memories of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads from the 1990s. The creatures get to the meat inside the ngali nut by drilling a hole in the shell with their teeth. Knowing this detail now, scientists can track rats by following their leftover shells like breadcrumbs.

The giant rat evaded detection probably because of its tiny population and the fact that it lives hidden within dense vegetation of rain forest canopies. Lavery’s camera traps only captured common black rats.

“I was a bit worried that this was the only thing we were going to find,” Lavery said. “If you don’t know anything about it, it makes it all the more harder.”

The researchers met with island residents familiar with the rats, their diet and this remote area during their search. But the chance encounter that led to the first scientifically recorded Vangunu giant rat occurred on the edge of a conservation area. Injured when the tree fell, the rodent died shortly after its discovery. It was buried in a stone tomb for 10 days before being sent to the Queensland Museum in Australia, where it will remain.

The rare species will begin its scientific life listed as critically endangered because the island is losing rain forest habitat to logging.

“Now that we know it definitely exists,” Lavery said, “we can work out ways to conserve it.”

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