Meet Margaretamys christinae. Like her three sisters, she lives in the wilds of Sulawesi, but is distinguishable by her home high in the Mekongga mountains, her smaller build and her white-tipped tail.
While she may be a rat, she is not just any rodent. She is one of the newest species to be discovered in Indonesia, and the latest in the biodiversity haven of the Mekongga region in Southeast Sulawesi.
The discovery of M. christinae, the fourth species in the genus Margaretamys, all of which are endemic to Sulawesi, has “important zoogeographical and conservation implications,” says Dr. Alessio Mortelliti, the Sapienza University of Rome researcher who found her during an expedition from December 2010 to March 2011.
“Mine was one of the few mammalogical expeditions in the Mekongga mountains since 1932,” he told the Jakarta Globe in an e-mail.
The expedition, funded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, was mounted to gather data on species first described 80 years ago by German explorer Gerd Heinrich. Although not all the species being sought were sighted, Mortelliti did manage to find the new rat species at an altitude of 1,537 meters.
He says there are several differences between M. christinae and the three previously known Margaretamys species — M. beccarii, M. elegans and M. parvus.
“The final segment of the tail is white, it differs [in terms of] several craniometrical and dental characteristics, [and has a] small body size,” he says.
And as for the name? “The species is dedicated to Christina, my girlfriend, who shared with me the experience of the Sulawesi expedition,” Mortelliti says.
His paper on the discovery will be published in the upcoming volume of the peer-reviewed journal “Tropical Zoology.”
Mortelliti notes that the discovery of a new mammal species is very uncommon.
“Scientists estimate that something like eight to 10 million species are yet to be discovered,” he says. “Even if the discovery of invertebrates is a relatively frequent event … the discovery of a new mammal species is quite a rare event.”
Still, he believes the Mekongga mountains could hold even more surprises.
“I strongly believe that it is very likely that several other undiscovered species may be present in the area, including other Margaretamys species,” he says.
“These are all forest species, so are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. The Mekongga mountain range is threatened by logging and by expansion of cocoa plantations. The establishment of a protected area will surely help to conserve these rare endemic species,” he adds.
During his expedition, Mortelliti was also able to confirm the existence of Prosciurillus abstrusus, aptly known as the secretive dwarf squirrel and one of the many species endemic to the Mekongga region.
He also found a specimen of Maxomys dollmani, or Dollman’s spiny rat, one of the four rodent species that the expedition had initially set out to study.
“The other three species may either have been undetected or could be extinct. Further research is mandatory,” he says.
M. christinae is the latest new species to be discovered in the Mekongga area. In March, US and Indonesian scientists published a paper describing a massive new wasp species named Megalara garuda.