‘Oddball rodent’ in Laos takes scientists by surprise

‘Oddball rodent’ in Laos takes scientists by surprise
By John Noble Wilford The New York Times
THURSDAY, MAY 12, 2005

They live in the forests and limestone outcrops of Laos. With long whiskers,
stubby legs and a long, furry tail, they are rodents but unlike any seen
before by wildlife scientists.

They are definitely not rats or squirrels, only vaguely like a guinea pig or
a chinchilla. And they often show up in Laotian outdoor markets being sold
for food. There, visiting scientists came upon the animals and determined
that they represented a rare find: an entire new family of wildlife.

The discovery was announced Wednesday by the Wildlife Conservation Society
and described in a report in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

The new species in this previously unknown family is called kha-nyou
(pronounced ga-nyou) by local people.

Scientists found that differences in the skull and bone structure and in the
animal’s DNA revealed this to be a member of a distinct family that diverged
from others of the rodent order millions of years ago.

“To find something so distinct in this day and age is just extraordinary,”
said Robert Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the
discoverers. “For all we know, this could be the last remaining mammal
family left to be discovered.”

Naturalists had trouble recalling when a new family of mammals was last
identified. It may have been when, in the 1970s, a new family of bats was
found in Thailand. The most active period of finding and classifying new
species and families was in the 19th century, when explorers and settlers
moved into remote interiors of the continents.

Timmins said in an interview that he first came on the animals laid out on
market tables. Local farmers and hunters trapped or snared the animals,
slaughtered them and rushed them to market. As far as he knew, Timmins said,
no Western scientists have ever seen a kha-nyou alive.

The encounter occurred in the late 1990s, about the same time that another
scientist, Mark Robinson, independently collected several of the carcasses
as specimens. The adults have bodies about a foot long, or 30 centimeters
with a tail that is not as bushy as a squirrel’s. They knew immediately that
this was, as Timmins said, “an oddball rodent.”

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