Laos: ‘living fossil’ rock rat Laonastes captured alive

LaonastesFrom Palaeoblog, with different links there:

‘Extinct’ Laotian Rock Rat Captured

The first images of a live specimen of a small, furry animal once believed to have gone extinct more than 11 million years ago have been captured during a Southeast Asian expedition led by a retired Florida State University researcher.

From the FSU press release:

The remarkable video and photos shot by David Redfield, a professor emeritus of FSU’s science education faculty, and Thai wildlife biologist Uthai Treesucon are being hailed as historic images documenting a true “living fossil,” the Laotian rock rat.

Redfield’s video shows a docile, squirrel-sized animal covered with dark, dense fur and bearing a long tail that’s not as bushy as that of a typical squirrel.

Perhaps the most striking observation is how the animal walks — like a duck.

Clearly not adapted to climbing trees, the rock rat exhibits a duck-like waddle with its hind feet splayed out at an angle to its body.

Known as kha-nyou (pronounced “ga-noo”) in Lao villages near its habitat, the animal was first described scientifically in the April 2005.

Identified as a member of an entirely new family of mammals, the rock rat made news around the world.

It gained international attention again on March 10 of this year when scientists published a paper in Science magazine re-identifying the animal as a “living fossil” whose last remaining relatives went extinct 11 million years ago.

The Laotian rock rat so called for its only known habitat — limestone outcroppings in Central Laos — and the appearance of the animal’s head and face, which sport long whiskers and beady eyes like those of a rat.

To view photographs and video of the Laotian rock rat, visit RockRat.

Laos: newly discovered mammal related to ancient fossils

Laotian rock-rat, Laonastes

The BBC reports:

New rodent is ‘living fossil’

By Helen Briggs

BBC News science reporter

A squirrel-like rodent discovered in Laos is the sole survivor of a group that otherwise died out 11 million years ago, according to fossil data.

The animal made headlines in 2005 when it was hailed as the only new family of living mammals to be found in 30 years.

But scientists now believe it is a “living fossil”, the relic of a group of prehistoric rodents once widespread in South East Asia and Japan.

Writing in the journal Science they say efforts must be made to conserve it.

The rodent, Laonastes aenigmamus, was found by scientists at a hunter’s market in Laos in early 2005.

Robert Timmins from the Wildlife Conservation Society saw it on sale next to some vegetables.

“I knew immediately it was something I had never seen before,” he said at the time.

While previously unknown to the worldwide scientific community, it is familiar enough to local people to have a name, the kha-nyou.

The creature has dark-grey fur and is about the size of a red squirrel.

It has short legs, a hairy tail and a long snout.

Fossil puzzle

After the kha-nyou was discovered, specimens were sent to London’s Natural History Museum, to compare with material in its vast research collections.

Based on differences in the skull, teeth, bones and other body features together with DNA analysis, scientists said it was an entirely new rodent family more closely related to rodents in Africa and South America than in Asia.

But when a particularly impressive fossil of a long-extinct rodent was unearthed in China last summer, a US-led team wondered whether it might be a living member of the long-gone family.

They went back through the fossil evidence and found that the kha-nyou’s skull, teeth, lower jaw bone and other skeletal characteristics were a striking match to the fossil.

They believe it belongs in the same group – the otherwise extinct rodent family Diatomyidae.

Chief author Mary Dawson of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh said it was extremely rare for a mammal to reappear after such a long gap in the fossil record.

“A new family of living mammals does not crop up everyday,” she told the BBC News website.

“When we have a living fossil it opens up a way of looking at past biodiversity on the molecular level that we don’t ordinarily have.”

Nocturnal recluse

Laonastes lives in a rocky limestone area dotted by small patches of forest.

It is thought to be nocturnal but has yet to be observed by biologists in the wild.

Dr Dawson said efforts to conserve Laonastes should be given the highest priority.

“We don’t know what its status is – whether there are a lot of them around or just a few,” she said.

“This animal better be protected while it is (still) around.”

Exciting finds

The area of South East Asia where the rodent was found is regarded as one of the richest “hotspots” of biological diversity in the world.

Several other new mammals have been found there in recent years, including a new species of bat, a mouse-like rodent and a hedgehog-like mammal.

“It is highly likely that there are more exciting and unusual animals to be found in South East Asia,” said Paula Jenkins of London’s Natural History Museum, who carried out the original analysis of Laonastes.

The latest evidence is described in the current issue of the journal Science, by authors from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, US, Montpellier University, France, and the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthroplogy in Beijing, China.

Later, new frog species were found in Laos; six new frog species, and a salamander: here.

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