Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Suspicious Extinct Rat Discovery

Red-crested Tree rat rediscovery after 113 years - bizare monotypic genus from El Dorado Nature Reserve
Red-crested Tree Rat (Santamartamys rufodorsalis) by Lizzie Noble/Fundacion ProAves via Flickr
Once again @astroengine comes up with the good links on Twitter. This time an article in Wired Science about an animal that was thought to be extinct. Apparently this animal just "shuffled up" on the handrail of a deck where two nature reserve volunteers happened to be hanging out. I read the article and I didn't get a good feeling from it. It seemed lacking in scientific rigor. There was a link to the original photo at the bottom of the article so I clicked that and got the Flickr page of the original.  There were actually more shots than the one in Wired. I like this one better. (I hope I gave proper attribution here. Flickr gave me the HTML to insert that photo there.)

Then I went back and clicked more links in the Wired article and got Wikipedia? Now ok, sometimes I use Wikipedia links on my blog, but not for something like the only recorded instance of an animal. The Wikipedia article has links in it as well, so I clicked one. The first one is the IUCN Redlist which seems slightly more rigorous. I think I would have used that instead of Wikipedia. The other link was a USA Today article that surprisingly has more detail than Wired Science. Just to keep my expectations in line it went to pieces in the last sentence.
The whole episode is slightly surreal, says Salaman. The animal actually met the biologists on the stair as they were heading up to their bunks "It climbed up the banister and walked up to them and sat there for two hours, It's almost as if it were trying to show it had survived."
Great, a sentimental scientist. I am impressed that these volunteers had such a long attention span for an animal they just thought was cute, though. Two hours? Man, I hope they brought a sandwich. They didn't even know it was a rare species until later. Apparently Lizzie Noble has the same instincts as me about these things. When she doesn't know what she's found she emails pictures to experts. In her case it was this Paul Salaman character. He knew what they were only because he'd sent people to look for them in 2007. He probably found out about them in 2005. Before that they were a secret in a museum, two specimens collected in 1898. Back in the those days when anybody found something interesting they'd kill it and skin it out and cram it full of sawdust and sew it up again and send it to one of the big museums, like in Chicago or New York. That's why so many species are known to exist in my home county in Georgia, because a famous naturalist lived there around that same time frame. Mr. Stoddard killed and stuffed hundreds of specimens (need to take a poll on this guess) and sent them off to be formally identified and cataloged. His son was playmates with my grandmother and her brothers and sister. I grew up hearing stories about him. Like the time he asked people to be on the lookout for Ivory Billed Woodpeckers. One day a man came to his house to tell him he had seen some, and then obligingly shot them. Here they are. Probably the last pair of Ivory Billed Woodpeckers in Georgia.
Lady Longleaf the Opinioneer

So anyway in 1898 somebody like Mr. Stoddard on a field trip in a Columbian cloud forest killed a couple of these rats and skinned them out and sent them to the New York Museum of Natural History. In 2005 Louise Emmons of the Smithsonian Institute studied these old skins and decided to call them Santamartamys rufodorsalis. That's a whole genus to itself. I have to tell you I think that 107 years is a bit long for a backlog to pick a genus for something. I'm impressed they bothered to look at them at all. So after this unique genus and species was identified Paul Salaman got some funding to send people to look for them. They didn't find them. Then this one just "shuffled up" to a couple of volunteers who were there to look for frogs.

So anyway, that Wired Science article isn't that good. I am a little bitter that whoever wrote that has a job and I don't. Granted if I worked for Wired I wouldn't get to tell all my personal anecdotes. I'll put it behind me. I'm glad they found that rat chillin' on the banister and not busily storing calamondins in the engine compartment of their station wagon like the rats back in Beachton.

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