Good news: Scientists have discovered a new species of giant rat

 In Science

Vika, a sharp-toothed rat that grows up to 18 inches long and lives in a tree. It’s just a painting, but Vika is real. (Peggy Macnamara/Field Museum)

In the isolated Solomon Islands, mothers and fathers have been known to sing to their children of apocryphal rats.

In one rhyme, Kamare and Isuku go scurrying up a child, one rat on each side. They climb the ribs and reach the armpits, where the singer finally tickles the child.

Isuku, as the song goes, is what your average New Yorker might consider a fairly normal-size rat.

But Kamare, the children are told, is big.

The mammalogist Tyrone Lavery learned of this rhyme as he searched the Solomons for another giant rat — Vika — rumored to live in the trees, a foot-and-a-half long, with teeth so sharp it can punch through a coconut.

And unlike the rats in the song, Vika is very real. Its scale-covered tail, great jaws and a few rare photos were revealed Wednesday in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Uromys vika is the first rodent species to be discovered in the islands in nearly a century, at the end of Lavery’s long search.

Photos of the only know specimen of the giant rat Vika, taken before its death. (Oke Revoh)

He was first drawn to this chain of hundreds of islands in 2010, as he researched mammals at the University of Queensland. Far off the coast of Australia, the Solomons are renowned for elusive, unique species that evolve in near isolation from the rest of the planet — like the Guadalcanal monkey-faced bat.

The PhD student was sitting around a fire with village elders on the island of Vangunu, in the thick-forested caldera of an ancient volcano.

As rice and sweet potato cooked in the flames, Lavery recalled, he asked the elders what things he might find in the forests.

“They told me about this giant rat they called Vika,” he said. They said Vika lived in the trees, was a bit smaller than a possum, and was so strong it could chew through thick-shelled ngali nuts.

Lavery knew giant rats exist in the Solomons — but of the few species to have been documented, some had not been seen since the 19th century. And no rodents had even been found around Vangunu, he said.

(Tyrone Lavery/Field Museum)

So he set off at once into the forest with the villagers and spent several days and nights searching among the palm trees.

He found hard nuts with great holes chewed into them, just as the elders had described.

One night, as he held a spotlight up to the thick canopy of trees, Lavery thought he saw two rats running along a branch.

“It was only a fleeting glimpse,” he said. “To this day, I can’t be certain whether it was Vika . . . But it was enough to start me thinking we had a chance to find this rat.”

As he researched from the university in Australia, Lavery found that Vika was more than a local rumor. Its name was listed in a dictionary of words from the region that an anthropologist had compiled in the 1990s.

The definition of Vika: “A very big rat that eats coconuts.”

When Lavery went back to the island in 2011, he found a large dropping in the rain forest. A lab analysis turned up ngali nuts and rodent hair in the stool.

And so Lavery went back into the rain forest again and again — nearly a dozen times in five years, he said.

Residents of the village of Zaira were happy to guide him, he said, because their forest was one of few parts of the island that had not yet been ravaged by logging, and they were fighting to protect it.

“They understand it’s important to document,” Lavery said.

But in all those trips — weeks at a time in dense palm forests under pouring rain — he never again found any evidence of Vika.

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