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Lost critter reappears, poses for photos after 113 years

May 21, 2011
Courtesy of Conservation International
and World Science staff

An odd-looking, puffy red ro­dent, un­seen since 1898 de­spite con­cert­ed search at­tempts, reap­peared this mon­th—lit­erally at con­servati­on­ists’ front door, an en­vi­ron­men­tal group has an­nounced.

The “mag­nif­i­cent” ex­am­ple of the red-crested tree rat San­ta­mar­tamys ru­fodor­salis showed up one eve­ning at the front en­trance of a lodge at a na­ture re­serve in Co­lom­bia, ac­cord­ing to Ar­ling­ton, Va.-based Con­serv­ati­on In­ter­na­tional. The crea­ture hung around for al­most two hours, let­ting de­light­ed and as­ton­ished vol­un­teers snap pho­tos in­clud­ing close-ups, be­fore am­bling back in­to the woods.

Courtesy Lizzie Noble/ProAves


“He just shuf­fled up the hand­rail near where we were sit­ting and seemed to­tally un­per­turbed by all the ex­cite­ment,” said Liz­zie No­ble of Go­dal­ming, Eng­land, a vol­un­teer at the sanc­tu­ary who said she had been on the job just a month when the the spec­tac­u­lar good for­tune came knock­ing. “We are so proud that our El Do­ra­do Na­ture Re­serve has pro­vid­ed a safe hav­en for this en­ig­mat­ic lit­tle guy to sur­vive.”

The time for celebrati­ons may be lim­it­ed, though, as sci­en­tists warned that the work be­gins now to save this still ex­tremely en­dan­gered crea­ture.

The charm­ing noc­tur­nal beast, the size of a guin­ea pig, made his re-de­but at 9:30 p.m. on May 4, ac­cord­ing to Con­ser­v­ati­on In­ter­na­tional. No­ble and co-vol­un­teer Si­mon Mc­Ke­own said they had been mon­i­tor­ing en­dan­gered am­phib­ians when the rat showed up. The vo­lun­teers work for the Co­lom­bi­an bird or­gan­iza­ti­on Pro­Aves, which es­tab­lished the re­serve in the coun­try’s far north,

“The El Do­ra­do Na­ture Re­serve rep­re­sents the ul­ti­mate Noah’s Ark, pro­tect­ing the last popul­ati­ons of many crit­ic­ally en­dan­gered” species, said Paul Sala­man, a sci­ent­ist from the World Land Trust-U.S. in Wash­ing­ton, DC who con­firmed the rat’s ident­ity.

“Had we not worked with our part­ners to es­tab­lish this re­serve, it is rea­son­a­ble to be­lieve this spe­cies would still re­main some­thing that was only talked about in sci­ence jour­nals. Now we need to work with our part­ners to take steps to see that this spe­cies con­tin­ues to be a part of our world,” said George Fen­wick, pres­ident of Amer­i­can Bird Con­serv­ancy.

The red-crested tree rat will now likely be des­ig­nat­ed as “crit­ic­ally en­dan­gered,” ac­cord­ing to Con­serv­ati­on In­ter­na­tion­al. Most wor­ri­some is that hun­gry, fe­ral cats have in­vad­ed much of the rat’s po­ten­tial range that re­mains.

Courtesy Lizzie Noble/ProAves


In 2005, Lou­ise Em­mons of the Smith­so­nian Ins­titu­ti­on in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. ex­am­ined the only two skin spec­i­mens of the tree rat then known. She iden­ti­fied a num­ber of un­ique char­ac­ter­is­tics, and as­signed the spe­cies to its own ge­nus. It is 18 inches (46 cm) long from head to tail and is dis­tin­guished by a mane-like band of red­dish fur around its neck and a black and white tail.

The 2,000-acre El Do­ra­do re­serve is an eco­tour­ism des­tin­ati­on named af­ter the leg­end­ary lost ­city of gold, sit­u­at­ed in cloud forests at 5,900 feet, two hours’ drive from the coast­al tour­ist ­city of San­ta Mar­ta. The re­serve and ad­ja­cent lands host the high­est con­centrati­on of con­ti­nen­tal, range-restricted bird spe­cies found an­y­where in the world, ac­cord­ing to Con­serv­ati­on In­ter­nati­onal in­clud­ing the en­dan­gered San­ta Mar­ta Par­a­keet, San­ta Mar­ta Bush-Tyrant, and San­ta Mar­ta Sa­brew­ing, all of which have their en­tire or ma­jor strong­hold po­p­ul­ati­ons there. It al­so holds one of world’s high­est con­cen­trati­ons of en­dem­ic and threat­ened am­phib­i­an spe­cies. It’s list­ed as an Al­li­ance for Ze­ro Ex­tincti­on site, which puts it among the world’s high­est pri­or­i­ties for con­serv­ati­on, though re­markably lit­tle is known about the ar­ea, Con­serv­ati­on In­ter­nati­onal said.

“This discovery marks the be­gin­ning of a ma­jor ef­fort to save the red-crested Tree rat and her­alds the start of a glob­al in­i­ti­a­tive in search of lost mam­mal spe­cies,” said Sala­man.


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An odd-looking, very fuzzy red rodent, unseen since 1898 despite concerted search attempts, reappeared this month—literally at conservationists’ front door, an environmental group has announced. The “magnificent” example of the red-crested tree rat Santamartamys rufodorsalis showed up one evening at the front entrance of a lodge at a nature reserve in Colombia, according to Arlington, Va.-based Conservation International. The creature hung around for almost two hours, letting delighted and astonished volunteers snap photos including close-ups, before ambling back into the woods. “He just shuffled up the handrail near where we were sitting and seemed totally unperturbed by all the excitement,” said Lizzie Noble of Godalming, England, a volunteer at the sanctuary who said she had been on the job just a month when the the spectacular good fortune came knocking. “We are so proud that our El Dorado Nature Reserve has provided a safe haven for this enigmatic little guy to survive.” The time for celebrations may be limited, though, as scientists warned that the work begins now to save this still extremely endangered creature. The charming nocturnal beast, the size of a guinea pig, made his re-debut at 9:30 p.m. on May 4, according to Arlington, Va.-based Conservation International. Noble and co-volunteer Simon McKeown, working for the Colombian bird organization ProAves which established the reserve in the country’s far north, said they had been monitoring endangered amphibians when the rat showed up. “The El Dorado Nature Reserve represents the ultimate Noah’s Ark, protecting the last populations of many critically endangered and endemic flora and fauna; a living treasure trove like no other on earth,” said Paul Salaman, a scientist from the World Land Trust-U.S. in Washington, DC who confirmed the species’ identity. “Had we not worked with our partners to establish this reserve, it is reasonable to believe this species would still remain something that was only talked about in science journals. Now we need to work with our partners to take steps to see that this species continues to be a part of our world,” said George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy. The red-crested tree rat will now likely be designated as Critically Endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature ‘s Red List of Threatened Species criteria, according to Conservation International. Most worrisome is that hungry, feral cats have invaded much of the rat’s potential range that remains. In 2005, Louise Emmons of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. examined the only two skin specimens of the tree rat then known. She identified a number of unique characteristics, and assigned the species to its own genus Santamartamys. It is 18 inches (46 cm) long from heac to tail and is distinguished by a mane-like band of reddish fur around its neck and a black and white tail. The 2,000-acre El Dorado reserve is an ecotourism destination named after the legendary lost city of gold, situated in cloud forests at 5,900 feet, two hours’ drive from the coastal tourist city of Santa Marta. The reserve and adjacent lands host the highest concentration of continental, range-restricted bird species found anywhere in the world, according to Conservation International including the endangered Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, and Santa Marta Sabrewing, all of which have their entire or major stronghold populations there. It also holds one of world’s highest concentrations of endemic and threatened amphibian species. It’s listed as an Alliance for Zero Extinction site, which puts it among the world’s highest priorities for conservation, though remarkably little is known about the area, Conservation International said. “This discovery marks the beginning of a major effort to save the red-crested Tree rat and heralds the start of a global initiative in search of lost mammal species,” said Salaman.