Imagine a horror-movie-size rat that is ten times larger than your usual rat. Suddenly, the world would be a tad more terrifying place to live in. Well, this type of rats actually existed in the distant past: researchers have recently discovered fossils of 7 such giant rats on East Timor.
The discovery of what can safely be called the biggest rats ever known to us is part of the ‘From Sunda to Sahul’ project which primarily deals with studying the earliest human migration through Southeast Asia.
A modern rat is big enough to scare the hell out of us. What about one much larger?!
“They are what you would call mega-fauna. The biggest one is about five kilos, the size of a small dog,” says Dr Julien Louys of the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, who is one of the researchers leading the project.
“Just to put that in perspective, a large modern rat would be about half a kilo.”
What caused their extinction, though? The researchers are still trying to figure this out. Apparently, humans having moved to East Timor (the earliest records dating back to 46,000 years ago) used the rats as food.
“We know they’re eating the giant rats because we have found bones with cut and burn marks,” he said.
“The funny thing is that they are co-existing up until about a thousand years ago. The reason we think they became extinct is because that was when metal tools started to be introduced in Timor, people could start to clear forests at a much larger scale.”
The project’s main aim is to document the movement of humans through the islands of Southeast Asia and their impact on ecosystems.
“We’re trying to find the earliest human records as well as what was there before humans arrived,” Dr Louys said.
“Once we know what was there before humans got there, we see what type of impact they had.”
The information might then help contemporary conservation endeavours.