Scientists Discover New Rat Genus In Birthplace Of The Theory Of Evolution

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

The story of evolution sometimes circles back to its roots as biologists announced they have recently discovered a new species in the very location that gave birth to what we now know as the Theory of Evolution.

With a high-flying tuft of spiny hair on the back, a white tail-tip and three pairs of teats, the discovery of the unique-looking rat also helped to solidify theories about a specific corner of the Pacific.

The new rodent was discovered in the Moluccan province of Indonesia, a place made famous by 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace devised a Theory of Evolution based on his observations throughout Indonesia. At first working independently from Charles Darwin, the two naturalists would go on to collaborate in the late 1850s over their budding theories.

The new species was discovered on Wallacea, an Eastern Indonesian region named after the British naturalist. The team said they were surprised to discover the new rodent close to Boki Mekot, a mountainous area under intense ecological threat as a result of mining and deforestation.

“This new rodent highlights the large amount of unknown biodiversity in this Wallacean region and the importance of its conservation,” said Pierre-Henri Fabre from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate. “It constitutes a valuable addition to our knowledge of the Wallacean biodiversity and much remains to be learned about mammalian biodiversity across this region. Zoologists must continue to explore this area in order to discover and describe new species in this highly diverse, but also threatened region.”

Dubbed Halmaheramys bokimekot, the newly discovered rodent has a medium-rodent body size with brownish grey fur on its back and a greyish white belly, according to a report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. When taken together with its other characteristics, the new species presents a unique set of features that have never been seen before in the Moluccan province.

The unique plants and animals noted by Wallace in this region, compared to those in the neighboring region of Australia, inspired him to identify a zoogeographical line dividing the Indonesian archipelago into two separate parts: a western portion containing animals largely of Asian origin, and an eastern portion where the ecosystem tends to reflect Australasia. This divider is known as the Wallace line.

“The Halmaheramys discovery supports Wallace’s idea of an important faunal breakup in this region,” said Pierre-Henri Fabre. “Most of the species on the island of Halmahera reflect eastern origins, but our genetic analysis revealed a western origin of the new rat genus. That reflects the unique transition zone found in the Indo-Pacific, and warrants much greater scientific investigation.”

The new discovery comes after the same team updated Wallace’s 1876 zoogeographical world map last year using DNA analysis and species records. The team essentially showed that Wallace’s zoogeographical boundaries of the world were quite accurate, even without these 21st century tools.

“Such a remarkable island setting inspired one of the greatest biologists of all time, and if Sir Alfred Russell Wallace were alive today he would surely be excited by the prospect of further conservation and biodiversity study within the Moluccas,” Pierre-Henri Fabre said.