In the 2003 horror movie Willard, a lonely young man, played by Crispin Glover, develops an unusual relationship with the rats inhabiting his house. He trains them to obey his every command, ending up as the leader of his own “rat army,” which he uses to get revenge on his callous boss.
With their sharp teeth combined, his army of rats are a murderous force. Entertaining though the film is, what would have made it more exciting and gory is if the rats had been bigger – such as the size of the ones recently discovered in East Timor by a team of Australian archaeologists.
The giant species of extinct rat, the bones of which were unearthed in a remote cave, was forty times bigger than its modern relative, with a body weight of around 6kg, making it the biggest rat that ever lived. The finding was detailed earlier this week in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.
In comparison to the common black rat (Rattus rattus) – which weighs about 150 gms and is found throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas – the East Timorese species was a monster, with a size in excess of the average house cat. A photo showing the upper toothrows of the giant rat, placed alongside the skull of a black rat, helps to give an idea of scale.
Discovered in the same cave were the remains of 10 other species of rodents previously unknown to science, 8 of which would have weighed 1kg or more.
Carbon dating has shown that the giant species of rat, as well as some of the smaller species found in the same cave, went extinct around 1000 to 2000 years ago. CSIRO’s Dr Ken Aplin explained: “People have lived on the island of Timor for over 40,000 years and hunted and ate rats throughout this period, yet extinctions did not occur until quite recently.” Dr Aplin attributes the extinction of the rodents to the large-scale clearing of forests for agricultural purposes.
It’s possible, says Dr Aplin, that there could be at least one species of undiscovered rodent still living in the forests of East Timor. “Although less than 15 per cent of Timor’s original forest cover remains, parts of the island are still heavily forested, so who knows what might be out there?”