Before humans, Australia was colonized by rats

Story highlights

  • A single pregnant female could have been the Founding Mother of Australia's rodents
  • Native Australian rodents make up the majority found in Australia
  • This evolution is of interest because of its potential for practical applications in medicine

(CNN)A single pregnant female, which traveled aboard a coconut palm for part of her journey from Asia, could have been the Founding Mother of Australia's rodents, one scientist suggests.

Most of the rats and rodents in Australia today are descendants of a single species that arrived from Asia in two waves, the first 6 million years ago and the second about a million years ago. Like colonists of previous centuries, one or multiple rats arrived by way of the sea, scientists believe, clinging to floating foliage set adrift from the islands of Indonesia.
    "They didn't have to float all the way from Indonesia to Australia in one voyage," said Scott Steppan, a professor of biology at Florida State University. The sea level was lower at that time, and Australia and New Guinea were part of the same land mass, so only a set of straits had to be crossed.
      Floating part of the way, walking at other times, the rats probably made the journey after a storm, just as in modern times, mammals are sometimes found aboard floating vegetation.
      So how many rafted onto the continent in each wave?
      No one knows, but it could be "as little as one pregnant female," Steppan said. If this Founding Mother survived with at least some of her offspring, there may have been some inbreeding at first, but eventually, separate lineages would develop, all