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Laotian Rodent Proves Living Fossil

  • Chris Ashcraft
    Mar 14, 2006 Expand Messages
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      March 10, 2006

      Laotian Rodent Proves Living Fossil

      When wandering through a hunter's market in Laos, Robert Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation
      Society happened upon a previously unknown rodent. Called kha-nyou by locals--or rock rat--the
      long-whiskered and furry-tailed rodent was reputed to favor certain limestone terrain. Western
      scientists named it Laonastes aenigmamus or stone-dwelling enigmatic mouse--partially because a
      live specimen has never been collected--and thought the rock rat represented a new family of
      mammals. But new research reported in today's Science proves that Laonastes actually represents a
      fossil come to life.

      Paleontologist Mary Dawson of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and her team immediately
      recognized the strange rodent as a living member of a family thought to have been extinct for at
      least 11 million years: the Diatomyidae. Fossilized remnants of this group have been found
      throughout Asia with a distinctive jaw structure and molars. A new specimen of Diatomys discovered
      in June of last year in China bore an uncanny resemblance to Laonastes, including the same body
      size and tail span.

      "It's the coelacanth of rodents," Dawson says, referring to the ancient fish believed extinct
      until a live specimen was hauled from the depths by South African fishermen. "One of the beautiful
      parts of this discovery was that we were able to correctly predict that Laonastes would have four
      roots in its molars just as in Diatomys."

      The rock rat represents a rare opportunity to compare assumptions derived from the fossil record
      and an actual living specimen to determine overall accuracy of the techniques involved, the
      scientists argue. It also represents tantalizing support for the theory that many mammals evolved
      in Asia and later colonized other continents, as its closest living relative is the gundis--a
      guinea pig-like rodent of northern Africa.

      Ultimately, kha-nyou provides a compelling argument for preservation efforts in Southeast Asia,
      joining tree shrews, flying lemurs and tarsiers as remnant populations of ancient mammal families
      in the region. "Laonastes is not the only new organism to be discovered in southeastern Asia,"
      Dawson adds. "The highest priority must be given to preserving this unique biota and especially
      Laonastes while it is still possible."

      Christopher W. Ashcraft
      Northwest Creation Network