After Years of Searching, Scientists Finally Found This Coconut-Cracking Giant Rat

© Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum
© Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum

Tyrone Lavery has spent years on the lookout for a giant rat. Lavery, a mammalogist who works at Chicago's Field Museum, first heard of a tree-dwelling rat that locals on Vangunu Island called “vika” on his first trip to the islands as a postdoctoral researcher in 2010. Now, he's finally found it.

Tyrone reports the existence of a new (to science) species they've named Uromys vika in a study just published in the Journal of Mammalogy. It's the first new rodent found in the Solomon Islands in 80 years—"and it's not like people haven't been trying," as Lavery says in a press statement from The Field Museum. "It was just so hard to find."

The Solomon Islands, located just east of Papua New Guinea, are biologically isolated by the Pacific Ocean, and half the mammals native to the islands are found nowhere else. The unique nature of their ecosystem makes the Solomon Islands—much like the Galapagos—fertile ground for scientists.

Though researchers working in the Solomon Islands have suspected the existence of the vika for two decades, the rat found by Lavery and his colleagues John Vendi and Hikuna Judge is the first specimen recorded by scientists. They spotted it scurrying out of a felled tree, and judging by the shape of its skull, could tell that it wasn't like other species of rats native to the area. Before its discovery, Lavery had spent so long looking for the elusive rat that he was beginning to think that maybe the children's rhymes and folk songs referencing vika were just referring to regular black rats.

But his first instinct was correct. U. vika is more than four times the size of a regular rat, measuring about 18 inches long. It lives in trees, and its teeth are strong enough to crack into coconuts, chewing circular holes in the shells to reach the meat inside.

Lavery confirmed that the massive rat he found was a unique, new species by checking its DNA against the DNA of other regional rat species, and by confirming with Vangunu Island locals that the rat he captured was indeed the one they called vika. "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," the mammalogist explained.

The species will be designated as critically endangered, because commercial logging poses a huge threat to its rainforest habitat. It was hard enough to find just one of the rats, and there's no telling when (or if) scientists will see the vika again.

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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