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Stumbling Upon a New Species of Giant, Woolly Rat

by Devin Reese -- Apr 14, 2016
Devin Reese, smiling

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

The Giant Woolly rat was discovered in 2009 in a Papua New Guinea forest. Photo by Kris Helgen, Smithsonian.
The Giant Woolly rat was discovered in 2009 in a Papua New Guinea forest. Photo by Kris Helgen, Smithsonian.

How would you feel if you encountered a rat almost three feet long? Smithsonian’s Dr. Kristofer Helgen was overjoyed. The rat was discovered by Kris and other members of a BBC expedition team in a remote volcano in Papua New Guinea. They named it the Bosavi woolly rat, after its thick fur and its home on Mount Bosavi.

The Bosavi woolly rat has yet to receive its scientific name. Scientific naming reflects how an organism is classified in the tree of life, which biologists are still sorting out for this rat. They do know that it belongs in the same family, the Muridae, as our common city black rats and Norway rats. They also know that it belongs in the genus Mallomys, a group that includes other oversized rats. But, its unique identifier — the species name — has yet to be announced.

What makes something a species? This can be a surprisingly hard question to answer. Many scientists think of a species as a group of living organisms that can reproduce and pass genes on to the next generation. Historically, scientists identified species by the way animals looked (their morphology) and behaved, sorting them into categories based on things like arrangement of teeth and diet. Species were sometimes misclassified if they looked similar, but were actually from different evolutionary lines.

Modern classification of species goes deeper to include other types of evidence such as genetics that reveal evolutionary relationships. Scientists analyze DNA to determine how closely related an organism is to other, similar organisms, and where it fits into the evolutionary tree. Finding and classifying new species gets us closer to understanding the invaluable biodiversity of Earth.

Even for mammals, there is more biodiversity to discover. Kris Helgen has discovered about 100 new species and is always on the lookout for more. See how he does it in a "Smithsonian Science How" webcast video titled How to Discover New Mammal Species on the Q?rius website. Kris discusses and answers questions. Get teaching resources to use with the webcast.

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