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New rodent species discovered

13 May 2005

A team of scientists working in southeast Asia have discovered a new species of rodent - the Kha-nyou.

Drawing of Laonastes © Robert Timmins

Drawing of Laonastes © Robert Timmins

The Kha-nyou, or Laotian rock rat,  looks similar to a squirrel, with long whiskers, short legs and a tail covered in dense hair. It is dark grey to black, nocturnal and eats plants including leaves, seeds and grass.

This discovery represents a new family, genus and species of rodent, named Laonastes aenigmamus (Laonastes means 'inhabitant of stone' and aenigmamus means 'enigmatic mouse'). It is the only new family of mammals to have been discovered in the last 30 years - the last one was family Craseonycteridae for the bumble-bee bat Craseonycteris thonglongyae described by Natural History Museum bat researcher John Hill in 1974.

Illustration of paw of rodent © Robert Timmins

Illustration of paw of rodent © Robert Timmins

The new rodent was discovered in the Khammouan Province of Lao Peoples Democratic Republic in southeast Asia by wildlife conservationists Robert Timmins (Wildlife Conservation Society) and Dr Mark Robinson (WWF-Thailand).

Specimens of the rodent were sent to Paula Jenkins, Zoological Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum. Paula compared Kha-nyou's skull, teeth, bones and other body features, with other animals from the Museum's vast research collections.

DNA analysis carried out by Dr C William Kilpatrick at the University of Vermont revealed an entirely new rodent family more closely related to rodents living in Africa and South America than those in Asia.

‘The animal's characteristics are distinctly different from any mammal species yet known to science,’ commented Paula Jenkins. ‘This new mammal provides us with an interesting insight into the evolution of this and other rodent families.’

Lateral view of Laonastes aenigmamus skull © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

Lateral view of Laonastes aenigmamus skull © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

‘To find something so distinct in this day and age is just extraordinary,’ said Robert Timmins. ‘This could be one of the last remaining mammal families to be discovered.’

The discovery is reported in the Natural History Museum's journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

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