If you thought a tree-dwelling, coconut-cracking giant rat was the stuff of fiction, you’re about to be proven wrong – researchers have captured the first-ever images of the rare, but particularly sizeable, Vangunu giant rat.
The photos of this rodent of unusual size were captured using a set of nine camera traps, placed strategically in the forested Zaira Conservation Resource Management Area in the south of the island of Vangunu, with help from the local community. Over the course of a year, traps successfully snapped 95 images of four individual giant rats, known scientifically as Uromys vika.
Although it’s not quite at the level of the swamp-dwellers in The Princess Bride, the Vangunu giant rat is still a hefty creature – they can weigh more than 2 pounds (just under a kilogram) and can reach up to 46 centimeters (18 inches) in length.
The giant rodent has long been known by Vangunu’s people, with stories of its ability to climb trees and chomp into coconuts, but it remained elusive to science. “For decades anthropologists and mammalogists alike were aware of this knowledge, but periodic efforts to scientifically identify and document this species were fruitless,” explained Tyrone Lavery, lead author of a study detailing the images, in a statement.
That is, until 2017, when the felling of a large tree in the south of the island also brought one of the giant rats down with it. Unfortunately, the rat was fatally injured by the incident, but researchers still took the opportunity to describe it. These new images help to create an even fuller picture of the species – but also confirm that it could be under threat.
“The images show the Vangunu giant rat lives in Zaira’s primary forests, and these lands (particularly the Dokoso tribal area) represent the last remaining habitat for the species,” said Lavery. “Logging consent has been granted at Zaira, and if it proceeds it will undoubtably lead to extinction of the Vangunu giant rat.”
Though its population size is unknown, the species is classed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Now holding the proof that the Vangunu giant rat does in fact exist, it’s hoped that conservation can be ramped up, continuing the efforts from the local community.
“We thank the community of Zaira for 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,” said Lavery.
“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.”
The study is published in Ecology and Evolution.