Sci­en­tists catch rare ro­dent

A lo­cal vil­lager in Bougainville has helped sci­en­tists bag a reclu­sive gi­ant rat. Richard An­drews re­ports.

Paradise - - Living -

After six years of trekking dense rain­forests, sit­ting out earth­quakes and scal­ing vol­canic slopes, Dr Ty­rone Lav­ery and his team have fi­nally bagged the rare Bougainville gi­ant rat – with the help of an ag­ile young vil­lager.

“Weigh­ing over a kilo­gram, these rats are some of the most spec­tac­u­lar ro­dents on Earth,” says the Aus­tralian Mu­seum bi­ol­o­gist. “But they’re like ghosts, rarely seen by sci­en­tists since they were first doc­u­mented early last cen­tury.”

Two species of the over­sized ro­dent were cap­tured on south­ern Bougainville, in­clud­ing one lit­tle­known type that is “data de­fi­cient,” ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture.

“No sci­en­tist has re­ally looked at this par­tic­u­lar species and de­scribed its ecol­ogy," says Dr Lav­ery, mod­estly avoid­ing the term ‘world first.’

The reclu­sive rats were mea­sured, weighed and pho­tographed, with some small tis­sue sam­ples taken for later DNA anal­y­sis.

Dr Lav­ery’s team worked with Dr Jef­frey Noro, di­rec­tor of The Kainake Project, a com­mu­nity con­ser­va­tion group named after his home vil­lage on Bougainville.

The project iden­ti­fies en­dan­gered species and vul­ner­a­ble ecosys­tems in or­der to des­ig­nate con­ser­va­tion ar­eas and pro­tect them from hunt­ing, log­ging or other en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­rup­tions.

Kainake vil­lagers have been trained to con­duct bi­o­log­i­cal sur­veys as part of the project and proved in­valu­able in track­ing down the rats.

Young peo­ple are also en­cour­aged to join the project’s con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and lo­cal school hol­i­days freed up an ex­tra source of en­thu­si­as­tic rat catch­ers to sup­port Dr Lav­ery’s team.

“One huge ben­e­fit of work­ing with lo­cals is that they’re more ag­ile than I am,” he says. “A young man named Fran­cis was able to climb up high and hand-cap­ture one of the gi­ant rats din­ing in a tree nest. “An­other rat was caught lower down while we were spot­light­ing one night.”

Dr Lav­ery says the ro­dents have strong jaws and teeth sharp enough to crack nuts and strip co­conuts. “How­ever, you can hold them un­der the chin to avoid get­ting bit­ten.”

De­spite their size and strength, rat num­bers have de­creased dra­mat­i­cally in the past cen­tury. Cam­era traps left in the for­est graph­i­cally show that the Ka­mare, as it’s known lo­cally, is no match for the large num­bers of feral cats.

The ex­pe­di­tion’s find­ings are the lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to re­search started about 100 years ago by the Rev­erend J.B. Pon­celet from the Catholic Mis­sion at Buin, in the south of Bougainville Is­land.

Dr Lav­ery has car­ried on the tra­di­tion by fo­cus­ing on en­dan­gered mam­mals through­out Me­lane­sia.

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