Published On: Fri, Oct 6th, 2017

The Elusive Giant Coconut-Cracking Rat of the Solomon Islands

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Nuts chewed by a newly identified species of rat found on the Solomon Islands, the Uromys vika.

Credit
Tyrone Lavery/The Field Museum

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.

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An illustration of the Uromys vika, which is exceedingly rare.

Credit
Velizar Simeonovski/The Field Museum

Now the Vanganu 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 Dr. Lavery reported this new species, Uromys vika, in the Journal of Mammalogy on Wednesday. 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 none were the giant rat of Vangunu. Uromys vika can weigh more than two 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 rat, and very, very, rare.

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Its method of eating conjures memories of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads from the 1990s. They 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 using their leftover shells like bread crumbs.

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. Dr. Lavery’s camera traps only captured common black rats.

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Three views of a skull of Uromys vika.

Credit
Tyrone Lavery/The Field Museum

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

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