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

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.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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