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Team finds rare cloud rat breed after 112 years

By Delmar Cariño
Northern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 22:32:00 04/26/2008

Filed Under: Environmental Issues, Animals, Science (general)

BAGUIO CITY -- A team of American and Filipino biologists recently found a rare breed of cloud rat at the Mt. Pulag national park in Benguet, which was first seen by a British scientist 112 years ago.

Dr. Lawrence Heaney, team leader and curator and head of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, identified the mammal here on Friday as the ?dwarf cloud rat,? a rare breed endemic to the Cordillera.

Heaney, whose team has been conducting studies on Cordillera?s animal life since 2000, marveled at the rat?s rediscovery, saying ?it is the animal whose existence had baffled biologists for so many years.?

He said the rat was dead when the team found it. Heaney?s team immediately preserved the rat and prepared it for shipment to Chicago for further studies.

?The Philippines may have the greatest concentration of unique biological diversity, relative to its size, of any country in the world,? Heaney told reporters here on Friday.

Samuel Peñafiel, Department of Environment and Natural Resources director in the Cordillera, said the dwarf cloud rat?s rediscovery could boost government efforts to protect the region?s threatened watersheds and mossy forests.

He said the findings of Heaney?s team meant that there is still a wide range of rare animal life worth saving in the region?s mountains and forests.

Danilo Balete, a research associate of the National Museum and Heaney?s co-team leader, said the dwarf cloud rat, known by its scientific name Carpomys melanurus, was found in a patch of mature mossy forest on Mt. Pulag.

?It was found in the canopy of a large tree, on a large horizontal branch covered by a thick layer of moss, orchids and ferns about five meters above ground,? he said.

Balete described the rat as ?a really beautiful animal with dense, soft reddish brown fur with a black mask around its large dark eyes, small round ears, a broad and blunt snout and a long tail covered with dark hair.?

It weighed 185 grams, he said.

Mt. Pulag is Luzon?s highest peak at 2,922 meters above sea level. It straddles Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya.

Emerita Albas, DENR?s Mt. Pulag park superintendent, said the park?s mossy forests had been gradually degenerating due to the encroachment of vegetable farms.

Based on initial assessment, Heaney said the rediscovery of the dwarf cloud rat indicated that ?it required a pretty much undisturbed mossy forest? to be able to survive.

The team worked on the theory that the rare species probably lived only in high big canopy trees with mature mossy forests and from an elevation of about 2,200 to 2,700 meters above sea level.

?The rat?s rediscovery was the first evidence of such fact,? Balete said.

Heaney said: ?Now that we know where to look for them, it will be possible to learn more.?

?The cloud rats are one of the most spectacular cases of adaptive radiation by mammals anywhere in the world, with at least 15 species ranging in size from 2.6 to 15 kg, all living only in the Philippines,? he said.

?They are the prime examples of why biologists refer to the country as the ?Galapagos times 10,?? Heaney said.

Heaney was referring to the Galapagos archipelago found west of Ecuador in South America that is known for its vast wealth of endemic species.

John Whitehead, a British researcher, first saw the dwarf cloud rat in 1896 when the indigenous peoples living within the Mt. Data national park brought him some live specimens.

Mt. Data, which covers Mt. Province, Ifugao and Benguet, provides the headwaters for the region?s four major river systems?Agno, Chico, Bued and Abra.

But the DENR had admitted the park?s watersheds are rapidly deteriorating due to the expansion of vegetable farms.

Heaney said Whitehead did not know anything then about the animal?s ecology but the animal?s life drew the heightened curiosity of biologists.

?Since then, the species became a mystery. This could be partly blamed on the disappearance of the forest in Mt. Data where the rat was found,? he said.

Research on the rat?s existence drew new life when the species was found lately in Mt. Pulag, he said.

Heaney said the Cordillera is known as the habitat of endangered species, like the cloud rat.

The rats were identified as ?cloud rats? since mossy forests are known as cloud forests, Peñafiel said.

Mt. Pulag is also known as the only place that hosts the four cloud rat species. One of them is the bushy tailed cloud rat, locally called ?bowet.?



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