In this day and age, when it seems like scientists have scoured the world many times over, it's a rare occurrence to discover a new species of mammal. It's even more surprising when a new mammal is discovered that happens to be as hard-to-miss as a giant tree rat so large that its teeth can crack open a coconut.
That's exactly what mammalogist Tyrone Lavery of the Field Museum in Chicago has found lurking in the trees of the Solomon Islands, after years of attempting to verify curious rumors of a large coconut-piercing creature in the islands, reports Discover.
If a large mammal is going to remain hidden from science, the Solomon Islands are among the few places on Earth where it's possible. Due to the islands' extreme isolation, the animals that live there have evolved in some wild and unique ways. In fact, more than half of the mammals on the Solomon Islands are found nowhere else on Earth. And the remote location also ensures that scientific expeditions are few and far between.
“The Solomon Islands are such a spectacular place to work,” Lavery said. “Each isolated island offers an opportunity to discover something new.”
He added: “It had been a long time since anyone had been working on mammals in the country. A lot of species were discovered there in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and many have not been seen since.”
Rumors of giant rats abound
Lavery and his team were not without any leads in their search for new and wondrous critters, however. Rumors of giant, possum-like rats on Vangunu Island are rampant. Locals even have a name for the animal: the vika. Still, these mysterious creatures had managed to elude the detection of Western scientists.
But, in 2015 there was a breakthrough. An employee with a logging company on Vangunu Island reportedly captured a wounded vika that had fallen from the canopy as a tree was being cut. The animal died shortly after its capture, but its remains were buried on site. Having heard that scientists were looking for the vika, the employee notified Lavery and his team, and they were able to recover the corpse.
Although it was badly decomposed, researchers were still able to get a DNA sample and study the animal's skeleton, and determined that the creature was indeed unique to science.
The new species has been given the name Uromys vika, and it is the first rat discovered in 80 years from the Solomons. It's also among the largest species of rat discovered on the islands, measuring in at over 18 inches long. Although its diet has yet to be confirmed, there's plenty of evidence that vikas are more than capable of cracking coconuts, just as tales suggest.
Due to the threat of deforestation on the Solomon Islands, the vika is likely to be designated as critically endangered just as quickly as it was discovered.
“The animal was found on the edge of the Zaira Conservation Area, an initiative led by a small village of only 250 people,” Lavery explained. “Recognition of this new species raises the value of their conservation area — they also have an endangered bat, and nesting endangered leatherback turtles.”
Let's hope that this single vika specimen was not among the last of its kind, and that these magnificent rodents are still plentiful, despite their elusiveness, among the tree-tops of the Solomon Islands. At the very least, their existence offers hope that strange and marvelous mammals might still be out there, waiting to be discovered.