"Living fossil" found in Laos

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Actual photo of the "rockrat" discovered in Laos. Courtesy of Uthai Treesucon.

A retired biologist from Florida State University has captured photos of a rodent in Laos which scientists thought was extinct for 11 million years. Science education professor emeritus, David Redfield and bird watcher, Uthai Treesucon, were able to catch the rodent, but only after failing to do so four times. They returned it to the wild after they took photos and a video of the rodent.

"We went to Laos specifically to find this animal. We were extremely fortunate in so many ways to be able to do this. We photographed it with stills and a movie camera. Then we took it back to its habitat and released it. It's easily one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, and I hope these pictures will help in some way to prevent the loss of this marvellous animal," said Redfield.

The rodent, whose scientific name is Laonastes aenigmamus, is called Laotian rock rat and known to local villagers as 'kha-nyou'. It belongs to the family Diatomyidae. It was photographed in Laos near the village of Doy, in May 2006. The rodent resembles a tree shrew or a squirrel. It walks like a duck and has angled feet that allow it to climb trees. These are the first live photos of the rodent to be taken, but last year, researchers found bodies of the dead animal being sold at local meat markets. The rodent has since been named as a new species.

"These images are extremely important scientifically, showing as they do an animal (with) such markedly distinctive anatomical and functional attributes. This is a truly exciting discovery," said Mary Dawson , the curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who confirmed the findings.

The rodent was able to be officially named after researchers compared bones from fossils of the rodent found in Asia, to bones of a recently found Laotian rock rat. Last summer, a fossil of the same rodent was found in China.

"Dr Redfield's sighting of the living animal is the first to be recorded scientifically. These are the first photographic images of the recently discovered 'living fossil' Laonastes aenigmamus," said Dawson.