Researchers camped out on the Indonesian island knew immediately that the creature that wandered into their traps was something new. With its upturned, pig-like nose, large ears and protruding bottom teeth, it didn’t look like other rodents.
It was only their second night in camp about 5,200 feet up Mt. Dako on Sulawesi Island, Indonesia, when two researchers went out to check separate traps. Both came back with what they’re calling the Hog-nosed shrew rat, a newly identified genus and species.
“The moment I saw it, it was obvious,” said Jake Esselstyn, LSU Museum of Natural Science Curator of Mammals. The finding, first made in 2013, was published recently in the Journal of Mammalogy.
It’s not the first time Esselstyn and other members of his team — Anang Achmadi with Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense in Indonesia and Kevin Rowe with Museum Victoria in Australia — found something new in this very diverse area of the world. The team discovered two other new genus in the past couple years: the Few-toothed shrew rat described in 2012 and the Sulawesi water rat identified last year.
“I’m more surprised when we don’t find new species,” Esselstyn said about their trips to find small mammals. “We find something almost every time we go.”
The team has been researching biodiversity in Indonesia since 2010. It’s a rich location for this kind of work, as the thousands of islands contain many different habitat types, from rainforest to mountains.
“So diversity is just really, really high in the country for that reason,” Esselstyn said. “It’s a huge country.”
It took two days, and a lot of porters, to get all the equipment up the mountain for this particular visit.
The new shrew rat was found at high elevation in an area sometimes called a mossy forest because everything from rocks to trees is covered in a healthy coat of moss. The large Sulawesi Island sits between Borneo and New Guinea and is the 11th largest island in the world.
“Every time we go there we’re trying to get a snapshot of the mammal diversity in each place,” Esselstyn said. The researchers want to get a better idea of not only how many different species exist on the island, but also where these species exist. For example, the Hog-nosed shrew rat has only been identified on this one island, on this one mountain, he said, which is similar to what they’ve found with other small mammals in the region.
A few identifying characteristics of this newly discovered species is the flat upturned nose that gives the shrew rat it’s name, as well as the large ears and long lower teeth. Less obvious is that this species lacks a muscle connector in the mouth seen in other shrew rats. That means the rat is a weak chewer, an analysis supported by the fact that its diet includes soft food like larvae and earthworms.
“This is what we call basic science that has no obvious practical benefits,” Esselstyn said about the new species discovery. “It’s not going to cure cancer.”
However, at the same time, there’s no way to predict what the future implications of the work will be and it’s important to know more about animal diversity and population levels if there is ever a need for conservation efforts, he said.
Then there’s one more reason.
“Humans are just curious and we like to know about the world we live in,” Esselstyn said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.