A favorite tale among residents of the Solomon Islands is the legend of the mythical monster rat known as Vika, who can climb trees, break open rock-shelled nuts with its teeth and cause cats to die in fright with just a look. That last legend is mine, but the rest are no longer scary campfire tales – the mythical Vika has been discovered alive and well on Vangunu Island.
"When I first met with the people from Vangunu Island in the Solomons, they told me about a rat native to the island that they called vika, which lived in the trees."
Mammalogist Tyrone Lavery reports in the Journal of Mammalology first came to the Solomon Islands in 2010 to look for new species in this isolated country of 900 islands east of Papua New Guinea and best known to most people for the World War II naval battles fought there, especially on Guadalcanal. Lavery immediately heard rumors of a giant tree-climbing nut-cracking rat but he doubted its existence, thinking at first that the native people were making up stories about common black rats.
“If you're looking for something that can live in 30-foot-tall trees, then there's a whole new dimension that you need to search.”
Is the mythical Vika so hard to find because it lives in another dimension? Not quite, but it seemed that way to Lavery until loggers felled a tall native tree and he witnessed a real giant rat running from it. The discovery was unlucky for that rat – it was dissected and determined to be a new species that Lavery named Uromys vika in honor of the legend – but lucky for the species in general because it may save the tiny number of others still in the trees from extinction by the steady encroachment of the logging industry.
“Vika are a lot bigger than the black rats that spread throughout the world with European colonists — the rats you’ll see in American alleys weigh around 200 grams (0.44 pounds), Solomon Islands rats can be more than four times that size, weighing up to a kilogram (2.2 pounds). And from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, the new species is about 45 cm (1.5 feet) long.”
The unbelievably large and critically-endangered Vika may also be saved by the rock-hard nuts it so easily cracks open. The Ngali nut is the fruit of the Canarium Indicum tree and the healthy local delicacy has become a popular item in natural food stores worldwide. The Vika must sit in the trees and laugh as only giant rats with vice-grip jaws can as they watch natives try to get to the inner met by spending hours pounding them with rock hammers.
Lavery hopes that his discovery of the Vika will stave off its extinction and keep its legend alive as well.
“These animals are important parts of culture across Solomon Islands – people have songs about them, and even children's rhymes like our 'This little piggy went to market.'"
If one of your little piggies looks like a giant rat, I don’t want to see your shoe bill.