The people who live on the Solomon Islands had long insisted to scientists that a giant tree-dwelling rat species lived among them. But as no scientists had ever been able to find an example of said rat, which the Islanders called vika, they simply assumed that the locals were seeing large black rats and assuming they were a different species.
The locals were vindicated when one fell 30 feet from a coconut tree on the island of Vangunu and was captured back in November. Though it quickly died from its fall, a local man who had been working with mammologists to locate a specimen of the rat brought its remains to a museum in Queensland, Australia where it could be studied.
The animal had not been preserved after death, so its body was not in the best condition. But researchers were still able to determine that this is a previously unrecorded rat species after analyzing the creature’s DNA. It has been given the scientific name of Uromys vika.
The vika can grow up to 18 inches in length and weighs two pounds or more. This makes it four times larger than the rats we typically see in American cities. It also has a long, hairless tail that is covered in scales and some pretty mean-looking curved claws that help it cling to the trees in which it lives.
The rat’s most interesting feature, though, are its teeth. Like most other rodents, the vika has large, sharp incisors. But the vika’s teeth are large enough and strong enough to tear into the tough outer covering of a coconut so that they can eat the meat inside. They also like to eat Canarium nuts, which grow in the Solomon Islands. These also have a very tough outer covering, which the rats are quite capable of gnawing through. Despite their large teeth, the rats have not been known to harm humans.
Even though they have just been discovered, the vika rat is likely to be added rather quickly to the critically endangered species list. This is because the animal’s habitat is being destroyed by logging. Nearly 90% of the trees on the Solomon Islands have been harvested by loggers, leaving the vika only small patches of land on which to live. Cats and other invasive species may also be killing the vika or competing with it for food.
The scientists involved with the study of the vika, and many of the Islanders, hope that the identification of this new species will help bring awareness to the environmental destruction that is taking place in the Solomon Islands. It is possible that the discovery and immediate placement of the vika on the endangered species list will cause more people to support the conservation area in which the rat specimen was found.