KU Professor Uses Newly Discovered Rat Species To Make A Political Statement

Feb 15, 2017

Last year, a new species of rat was discovered on Manus Island, part of the Papua New Guinea Admiralty Group, just north of Australia. The discovery gained worldwide attention, including a spot on Discover Magazine's list of top scientific discoveries of 2016, after the scientists who discovered it decided to name it Rattus detentus.

"The name was very carefully selected," said Robert Timm, a University of Kansas professor and one of the scientists who discovered the rat. Timm told Central Standard​ host Gina Kaufmann about his discovery and the naming process.

"The first point I hit upon with the name is that this species has been detained on this island, it didn't travel on ships, whereas other rats have," said Timm. "Also, Manus Island has a very large government detention center for refugees who are trying to get into Australia. Nine hundred people now are in this detention center and unable to get out."

Timm also said that this decision was a timely one.

"When Donald Trump spoke with the president of Australia, this was the main subject, this detention center. This name is an awareness raising technique, it's calling attention to the problem."

Timm explained that the fact that the rat had been isolated on Manus Island was unusual and a large part of the reason that it had been so difficult to discover.

Manus Island.
Credit DIAC / Flickr — CC

"It's a unique species that has been isolated on this island, which is interesting because the rat you see on islands of the world is the same rat that you see at home," said Timm. "The Norway rat is the one you see running across the streets in the middle of the night. Manus Island is the only place where this rat exists."

Scientists had long suspected that a new species may have been existed, as they had found bones and fossils from the animal. However, they had not been able to find an actual specimen until 2012 and, to this day, no scientist has seen the rat alive.

"There are thousands of teeth and bones from this rat, but we had no modern specimens until 2002 when two conservationists were working there and two local people found two rats and ate them. And they saved some bones for us, and sent it to us at the University of Kansas and I immediately recognized it as something new."

The University of Kansas is a long way from Manus Island, but its biodiversity institute boasts the second largest university mammal collection in the world.

Department of Immigration photograph of the Manus Regional Processing Center in 2012.
Credit DIAC / Flickr — CC

"We have specimens from all over," said Timm. "So if you're trying to identify something obscure, what you need to do is compare it to known material, and comparing it directly is better than reading about it."

The specimens at the university allowed Timm and other scientists to make such comparisons. Timm says the differences between Rattus detentus and other rats is clear.

"It's a good sized rat — as rats go — and it has very distinctive teeth," said Timm. "The front teeth are really massive, and the rear teeth are crushing teeth, so we believe this rat is consuming hard-to-chew foods. The rats you see in cities are omnivores, they love our garbage, but they'll also eat baby birds and insects, they're generalists, whereas we believe this rat is a specialist."

Timm hopes that in several years, scientists will look back at this discovery and remember not only the scientific contribution, but also the events that inspired the name.

"We thought very carefully about this," said Timm. "Because of the political situation and lack of awareness around the world, we wanted to call attention to how long the rat had been isolated on this island, and the political situation of the people detained on this island."

Caitlin Troutman is an intern for KCUR's Central Standard.