I was flicking through the pages of Time magazine a few weeks ago when I came face-to-face with something extraordinary. No, not Glen Beck – that was the following week’s edition. What I saw, was a giant rat – no, seriously, I’m still not talking about Glen Beck. This was a member of the genus Mallomys, a group of large murids that live in montane and mid-montane forests in New Guinea. As a former student of New Guinean mammals, I have a search image of Mallomys seared onto my visual cortex, along with cuscuses, tube-nosed fruit bats, and the earless water rat (Crossomys moncktoni – a truly bizarre creature which I encourage you to go away and investigate if you are a fan of odd animals). So I actually absorbed the fact that this was a specimen of Mallomys before I even noticed that the title of the article was “The Moment: 9/7/09 Papua New Guinea.” Yes, I’m that good.
Anyway, the gist of the article was that the BBC had sent an expedition to Mount Bosavi, a large extinct volcano in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they had discovered a “Lost World.” The BBC is always discovering Lost Worlds – a couple of years ago, it was reporting that another Lost World (containing another giant rat - obviously a winning formula) had been found in the Foja Mountains, which are in the Western, Indonesian half of New Guinea. Every time I read one of these pieces, I wonder who lost the World, and whether it was the same when they found it as when they last saw it. But then I’m just jealous. Anyway, I was delighted to read that the BBC team included my old Oxford chum, Dr. George McGavin. 20 years ago (yikes!) when I was a graduate student and George was the assistant curator of the Hope Entomological Collections, we would sit with our museum colleagues in the Eagle & Child on a Friday evening and George would tell us, with great earnestness, that he was destined for bigger things than this. And it seems he was! George is now a media scientist. (I’m jealous about that too)
Anyway, the Time piece went on to report, rather breathlessly, that the team had discovered 30 new species of animal on Bosavi, including the rat. “Oh yeah?” was my reaction, “Who’s your Mallomys expert then?” knowing full well that for all his entomological talents, George couldn’t tell a Mallomys from a Melomys (that’s a little murid joke for you). However, I managed to track down a video clip of the new Mallomys on the BBC website and there were the dulcet tones of another chum of mine, Kris Helgen, saying that this was a new species. Now Kris is one of the few people in the world who I would trust to be able to ID a new species of giant rat from New Guinea. So that was that. I just had to sit and sulk while watching the rest of the clip.
The BBC guys were all cooing over the rat, which one of them described as being “like a puppy.” Admittedly it was not much like the only live Mallomys that I encountered in my trips to New Guinea – that one was a snarling ball of shaggy black fur, whose only visible feature was a massive pair of incisors, which was hurling itself at the bars of its cage in an attempt to get at my throat. The Bosavi specimen was so docile that I wondered if they’d shot it full of ketamine. That got me thinking about something else; if this really was a new species, someone was going to have to take this little bundle of fun and turn it into a type specimen. Which means (gulp) killing it.
Now at this point, I was all set to use this as a jumping-off point to a much longer post. I was going to talk about the way in which museums have to respond to changes in public attitudes; how repatriation of human remains and artifacts, once almost unthinkable, has become commonplace; whether one day these moral/ethical concerns would grow into an organized campaign against collecting vertebrate specimens; if so, whether we, as museum professionals devoted to ensuring the long-term viability and utility of our collections, should be limiting the the extent to which we respond to emotive issues like this. About whether we need to balance responsiveness to this generation's concerns with responsibility to meeting the needs of future generations.
I spent two weeks writing the piece. Then I stopped and thought "Are you crazy? No-one's going to read this." So instead, here's some film of the new giant rat. They probably just took a couple of blood samples and some photographs and let it go again. Probably.....