Scientists on the South Pacific island of Vangunu have taken pictures of a critically endangered, giant, coconut-eating rat for the first time. The Vangunu giant rat (Uromys vika or U. vika ) is at least twice the size of a common rat, lives in trees, and can reportedly use its teeth to chew through the tough husks of coconuts. It is only known to only inhabit one island in the Solomon Islands. The sighting was reported in a study published November 20 in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
[Related: Elusive, unusually large tree-dwelling rodent discovered in the Solomon Islands.]
The rat was spotted by a team from University of Melbourne, Solomon Islands National University, and Zaira Village in Vangunu. First described in 2017, it is the first new species of rodent described in the Solomon Islands in more than 80 years. The deep traditional ecological knowledge of the rat from Vangunu’s people was crucial to the discovery.
“For decades anthropologists and mammalogists alike were aware of this knowledge, but periodic efforts to scientifically identify and document this species were fruitless,” study co-author and University of Melbourne mammalogist Tyrone Lavery said in a statement.
Co-author Kevin Sese from the Solomon Islands National University said that the field work was guided by this local knowledge. The team used camera traps to capture 95 images of four different individuals in their forest habitat.
“The knowledge is with the people. They are the custodians of the local knowledge,” Sese told The New York Times. “If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t have known where to place the cameras.”
U. vika is considered critically endangered due to logging of its lowland forest habitat. The images show it living in Zaira’s primary forests. These are ancient forests that have remained relatively undisturbed by humans. The lands and particularly the Dokoso tribal area represent the rat’s last remaining habitat, but logging has remained central to the economy of the island.
“Capturing images of the Vangunu giant rat for the first time is extremely positive news for this poorly known species,” Lavery said. “This comes at a critical juncture for the future of Vangunu’s last forest–which the community of Zaira have been fighting to protect from logging for 16 years.”
[Related: Rats can’t barf—here’s why.]
Zaira has been battling to have this patch of forest recognized and protected under the Solomon Islands Protected Areas Act 2010. While the Zaira community were adamant that this enormous rodent species lived in their forests, the rats had never been documented in a scientific journal until now. Confirming the presence could be a vital part of conservation efforts for Vangunu.
“We thank the community of Zaira for [their] unwavering commitment to conserve their forests and reefs in the face of continuous attempts to undermine this commitment, and for their support of this research,” Lavery said. “We hope that these images of U. vika will support efforts to prevent the extinction of this threatened species, and help improve its conservation status.”