New species of giant rat is five times bigger than average

It's so strong that it can crack open coconuts with its teeth

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A new species of giant rat has been discovered which is so strong it can crack open coconuts with its teeth.

Measuring one-and-a-half feet long and weighing more than a kilo (2lbs), it is five times bigger than your average rodent.

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The elusive creature lives in 30ft trees on Vangulu in the Solomon Islands. It had only ever been spotted by natives, leading to suspicions it was mythical.

Mammalogist Dr Tyrone Lavery first heard rumours of the giant, possum-like rat that lived in trees and cracked open coconuts with its teeth on his first trip there in 2010.

After seven years of searching and a race against deforestation destroying the rat's would-be home his team finally found it.

Lead author Dr Lavery, of The Field Museum, Chicago, said: "The new species, Uromys vika, is pretty spectacular - it's a big, giant rat.

"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."

The researchers likened it to a scene from The Princess Bride when the characters debate the existence of R.O.U.S.es (Rodents of Unusual Size) - only to be beset by enormous rats.

Dr Lavery said: "That's kind of what happened here."

The Solomon Islands, an archipelago of idyllic beaches in the South Pacific a thousand miles northwest of Australia, contain only 47 mammal species. But a remarkable 26, more than half, are found nowhere else on Earth.

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New species of giant rat discovered

The rat measures 1.5ft and weighs more than 1kg (2lbs)

Vika, described in the Journal of Mammalogy, are massive compared to the black rats that spread throughout the world with European colonists.

The rats you'll see in American alleys and London sewers weigh around 200 grams (0.44 pounds).

Vika weigh up to a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and from nose to tail are about 18 inches long.

They haven't yet been observed cracking open coconuts, but have a penchant for chewing circular holes into the rock hard shell of nuts to get at the meat.

Dr Lavery said: "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.

"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."

But years of searching didn't turn up any of the giant rats

He explained: "I started to question if it really was a separate species, or if people were just calling regular black rats 'vika'."

Part of what made the search so difficult was the rat's tree-dwelling lifestyle

Dr Lavery said: "If you're looking for something that lives on the ground, you're only looking in two dimensions, left to right and forward and backward.

"If you're looking for something that can live in 30-foot-tall trees, then there's a whole new dimension that you need to search."

Finally, one of the rats was discovered scurrying out of a felled tree.

Dr Lavery said: "As soon as I examined the specimen, I knew it was something different.

"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."

After comparing the specimen to similar species in museum collections and checking the new rat's DNA against that of its relatives, he confirmed the giant rat was new. He named it Uromys vika in honour of the local name.

He said: "This project really shows the importance of collaborations with local people."

He learned about the rat through talking with Vangunu locals and confirmed with them it matched the 'vika' they knew.

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Credits: The Field Museum / SWNS.com

Nuts were found bearing the characteristic tooth-marks of Uromys vika

The rat's huge size and possum-like tree-dwelling lifestyle can be traced back to its island home where a host of animals have evolved in isolation from the rest of the world.

Dr Lavery said: "Vika's ancestors probably rafted to the island on vegetation, and once they got there, they evolved into this wonderfully new species, nothing like what they came from on the mainland."

While the rat has only just been discovered, it will quickly be designated as Critically Endangered, due to its rarity and the threat posed by logging to its rainforest habitat.

Dr Lavery said: "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.

"It's really urgent for us to be able to document this rat and find additional support for the Zaira Conservation Area on Vangunu where the rat lives."

He also emphasised the necessity of preserving the rats, not just for ecological reasons, but for the role they play in the lives of Vangunu's people

He said: "These animals are important parts of culture across Solomon Islands -- people have songs about them, and even children's rhymes like our 'This little piggy went to market.'"

The discovery marks an important moment in the biological study of the Solomon Islands, especially since vika is so uncommon and close to extinction.

Added Dr Lavery: "Finding a new mammal is really rare - there are probably just a few dozen new mammals discovered every year.

"Vika was so hard to find, and the fact that I was able to persevere is something that I'm proud of."

World's strangest animals

World's strangest animals


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