For the first time, scientists have photographed a large, elusive rat that’s on the brink of extinction. Called the Vangunu giant rat (Uromys vika), the critically endangered species lives on just one island in the South Pacific, where logging has decimated much of its forest habitat.
Researchers hope the new photographs of the mysterious creatures will encourage local government leaders to protect the last bits of intact forest on Vangunu, which is part of the Solomon Islands, located northeast of Australia. They shared the images in a new paper published this month in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
Indigenous people in the Zaira community on Vangunu have long known about big rats that dwell in the trees and are capable of cracking coconuts with their teeth. However, researchers who visited the island were never able to observe or capture one, though they did find a large fecal pellet they suspected came from a giant rat in 2011.
Then, in 2015, loggers cutting down a tree captured an injured Vangunu giant rat, which died not long afterward. They preserved the body as well as they could, then sent it to the Queensland Museum in South Brisbane.
From that specimen, researchers confirmed the existence of the mysterious creatures, which are at least twice as large as a common rat. They also formally described the rat in a paper—the first new rodent species from the Solomon Islands to be recorded in more than eight decades.
But as commercial logging continued to fell trees on Vangunu, the scientists knew they needed more information about the giant rats.
They worked with the Zaira community to set up camera traps in tree species the rodents prefer and used sesame oil to lure them. In the past, researchers had tried using peanut butter, but those attempts were not successful—it only appealed to non-native black rats.
In the end, the team captured 95 images of four individual Vangunu giant rats—three females and one male. All the photos were taken at night, with most centered around midnight.
Collaborating with the Zaira community was critical to the project’s success, the researchers say.
“The knowledge is with the people,” says study co-author Kevin Sese, a researcher at Solomon Islands National University, to the New York Times’ Rebecca Carballo. “They are the custodians of the local knowledge… If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have known where to place the cameras.”
The photos are “extremely positive news for this poorly known species,” says study lead author Tyrone Lavery, a mammalogist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, in a statement. “This comes at a critical juncture for the future of Vangunu’s last forests—which the community of Zaira have been fighting to protect from logging for 16 years.”
The Zaira community wants the government to declare their part of the island, located on the southern side, a protected natural area where mining and logging are prohibited. However, the Solomon Islands Environment Ministry gave a logging company permission to operate in the area late last year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Liam Fox reported in May.
Documenting the presence of the endangered rat was “considered a vital part of conservation efforts” for Vangunu island, per the statement.
“We know this species doesn’t live in logged forests, so we needed to try and prove it still survived in the remaining forest on the island,” Lavery tells Newsweek’s Robyn White. “Our photographs were only the second time scientists have documented the species. We showed it still survives, and we highlight the importance of the last remaining tract of forest on Vangunu.”