Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a new rat species in the Solomon Islands. The giant rodent lives among the tree tops and can crack coconut shells with its big front teeth.
"The new species, Uromys vika, is pretty spectacular -- it's a big, giant rat," Tyrone Lavery, a post-doctoral researcher at The Field Museum in Chicago, said in a news release. "It's the first rat discovered in 80 years from Solomons, and it's not like people haven't been trying -- it was just so hard to find."
Lavery heard rumblings about an elusive giant rodent when he first came to the Solomon Islands in 2010, but it took several years for he and his colleagues to finally locate the species. Lavery and his research partners described their discovery this week in the Journal of Mammalogy.
The Solomons are a chain of islands situated several thousand miles northwest of Australia. The archipelago consists of a few larger islands and some 900 smaller islands. Because of the isolation of the Oceanic islands, the biodiversity is unique. More than half of the mammal species found in the Solomons are found nowhere else on the planet.
"When I first met with the people from Vangunu Island in the Solomons, they told me about a rat native to the island that they called vika, which lived in the trees," said Lavery. "I was excited because I had just started my Ph.D., and I'd read a lot of books about people who go on adventures and discover new species."
After a few years of fruitless searching, Lavery began to suspect the giant rat was just a myth. Finally, he happened upon an unusually large rat leaping out of a felled tree.
"As soon as I examined the specimen, I knew it was something different," he said. "There are only eight known species of native rat from the Solomon Islands, and looking at the features on its skull, I could rule out a bunch of species right away."
DNA analysis confirmed the new rat species was unique, and discussions with locals proved the rat was the one described by Solomon Island natives.
As is often the case with newly discovered species, the rat's existence is being severely threatened by habitat loss. With more of the Solomons' rainforest being cleared each year, the islands' unique species have less space to live.
"It's getting to the stage for this rat that, if we hadn't discovered it now, it might never have gotten discovered. The area where it was found is one of the only places left with forest that hasn't been logged," said Lavery.
Researchers say increased conservation efforts on the islands is essential to protecting the archipelago's unique biodiversity. Like other animals, the rats aren't just a part of nature but also of the native culture.
"People have songs about them, and even children's rhymes like our 'This little piggy went to market,'" said Lavery.