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