Eurvika! Expert discovers mythical giant rat in Solomon Islands

Undated handout photo issued by The Field Museum of a newly discovered tree rat, Uromys vika.
Undated handout photo issued by The Field Museum of a newly discovered tree rat, Uromys vika.

A mythical giant rat that is said to crack coconuts with its teeth has been discovered in the Solomon Islands after years of searching.

The elusive tree-dwelling rodent, which measures 18 inches from nose to tail tip, was identified as a new species, Uromys vika.

Mammal expert Dr Tyrone Lavery hunted for the animal after hearing rumours of a giant possum-like rat known to locals as "Vika" in 2010.

His quest ended when one of the creatures was spotted scurrying out of a felled tree.

Dr Lavery, from The Field Museum in 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 Solomon Islands is an archipelago 1,000 miles north west of Australia where biological isolation has led to the evolution of unique species.

More than half the mammals living on the islands are found nowhere else on Earth.

Dr Lavery first heard of the Vika from people living on Vangunu Island in the Solomons who told him the animal lived in 30ft rain forest trees and cracked open coconuts.

After years of fruitless searching, he was on the point of abandoning the hunt.

"I started to question if it really was a separate species, or if people were just calling regular black rats Vika," said Dr Lavery.

When he finally found a Vika rat he realised immediately that this theory was wide of the mark.

He 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."

Comparisons with museum specimens and analysis of the rat's DNA confirmed beyond doubt that the animal really was a new species.

Results of the research are reported in Journal of Mammalogy.

Weighing up to a kilogram (2.2lb), Vika is about three times heavier than the British brown rat.

Despite only just being discovered, the rat will quickly be classified as critically endangered due to its rarity and the threat posed by logging to its habitat.

"If we hadn't discovered it now, it might never have gotten discovered," said Dr Lavery.

"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.

"Finding a new mammal is really rare. There are probably just a few dozen new mammals discovered every year."