Meet 'vika': New 2-pound rat discovered

An illustration of the newly discovered giant tree rat, Uromys vika, known by the locals as "vika."

Story highlights

  • A new species of giant tree rat has been found on Vangunu Island, part of the Soloman islands
  • Researchers were only able to locate one

(CNN)After years of searching, researchers have confirmed the discovery a new mammal in the Solomon Islands: an endangered giant tree rat known as "vika" by the locals. But they were only able to locate one.

The rare animal looks more like a cute cross between a squirrel and a possum than a large rat. Local rumors describe it as a tree-dwelling creature that can crack coconuts open with its two front teeth.
    A new study released in the Journal of Mammology on Wednesday includes details and images of the lone vika that researchers were able to observe on Vangunu Island.
      Tyrone Lavery, a post-doctoral researcher at The Field Museum in Chicago and the lead author of the study, first heard rumors about vika during his first visit to Vangunu in 2010 and kept returning to the island, in search of it. The search became a race against time because deforestation was taking away vika's habitat -- the canopy of the island's rainforest.
      Lavery had two little clues along the way. The mention of "vika" in anthropologist Edvard Hviding's dictionary of the Marovo language, written 20 years ago, and when a team from the Australian Museum in Sydney went looking for the rat in 1992, nuts and coconuts with little holes cut out of them to extract the "meat" could be found on the island.
      Evidence of nuts with circular holes removed by rats in the Solomon Islands.
      The rats had also become part of the local culture itself, appearing in songs and children's rhymes.
        "Many of the native rodents found in Solomon Islands are featured in the culture of local people," Lavery said. "People at Zaira [village on Vangunu Island] have a really detailed knowledge of this species that has been passed down over centuries through the oral history that is very strong in Melanesia."
        But vika remained elusive.
        The incredibly tall trees of the forest made the creature almost impossible to find. This required traps placed in the canopy and spotlighting -- both difficult in the dense rainforest. And the species itself seemed rare.
        An unfortunate accident revealed the creature for the first time in late 2015 to Lavery's co-author, Hikuna Judge, a wildlife ranger from the Zaira Conservation Area -- a conservation area run by the Zaira village.
        The vika, while it was still alive.