I’ve always thought of rats as being quite small and lightweight creatures – even verging on dainty. Well someone forgot to tell the rats in East Timor to keep an eye on their calorie count… archaeologists have discovered rodent bones that suggest the biggest rat that ever lived weighed about six kilograms (13.2 lbs). That’s about as much as a three month old baby!
If you’re murophobic (having a fear of mice or rats), you had better stop reading now and cancel that holiday to East Timor. The archaeological excavations in a cave in East Timor yielded not only the ginormous rat, but 13 other species of rodents, including 11 that are new to science. And eight of these rats weighed more than a kilogram (2.2lbs).
According to the CSIRO’s Dr Ken Aplin, a wildlife biologist, “East Indonesia is a hot spot for rodent evolution. We want international attention on conservation in the area.”
Protecting all living species is important. Dr Alpin noted, “Rodents make up 40 per cent of mammalian diversity worldwide and are a key element of ecosystems, important for processes like soil maintenance and seed dispersal. Maintaining biodiversity among rats is just as important as protecting whales or birds.”
Dr Alpin thinks that the Timorese people managed to live sustainably until about 1,000 to 2,000 years ago suggesting that when people arrive on an island, extinctions don’t necessarily occur. The extinction could be a result of clearing forests for agriculture which may have only occurred after metal tools were introduced.
There are few native animals in Timor and bats and rodents make up the majority of the species. Once lushly populated with rainforests, most of Timor is arid today. But Dr Alpin hasn’t given up hope of finding a live giant rat – after all there are still parts of Timor where there are heavily populated forests. He said, “During a recent field trip in East Timor, I found the remains of a freshly dead rat which we knew about only from cave deposits.”