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Rat-squirrel not extinct after all

Friday, March 10, 2006

WASHINGTON -- It has the face of a rat and the tail of a skinny squirrel -- and scientists say this creature discovered living in central Laos is pretty special: It's a species believed to have been extinct for 11 million years.

The long-whiskered rodent made international headlines last spring when biologists declared they'd discovered a brand new species, nicknamed the Laotian rock rat.

It turns out the little guy isn't new after all, but a rare kind of survivor: a member of a family until now known only from fossils.

Nor is it a rat. This species, called Diatomyidae, looks more like small squirrels or tree shrews, said paleontologist Mary Dawson of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Dawson, with colleagues in France and China, report the creature's new identity in today's edition of the journal Science.

The nocturnal rodent lives in Laotian forests largely unexplored by outsiders, because of the geographic remoteness and history of political turmoil.

Schaller calls the area "an absolute wonderland," because biologists who have ventured in have found unique animals, like a type of wild ox called the saola, barking deer and never-before-seen bats.

Dawson describes it as a prehistoric zoo, teeming with information about past and present biodiversity.

All the attention to the ancient rodent will be "wonderful for conservation," Schaller said. "This way, Laos will be proud of that region for all these new animals, which will help conservation in that some of the forests, I hope, will be preserved."

Locals call the rodent kha-nyou. Scientists haven't yet a bagged a breathing one, only the bodies of those recently caught by hunters or for sale at meat markets, where researchers with the New York-based conservation society first spotted the creature.

Now the challenge is to trap some live ones, and calculate how many still exist to tell whether the species is endangered, Dawson said.


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