Seven fossils of giant rat species were unearthed by Australian archaeologists in East Timor. The discovered rat species are approximately 10 times bigger compared to modern-day rats and are the biggest known rat species to date.
"They are what you would call mega-fauna. The biggest one is about 5 kilograms, the size of a small dog. Just to put that in perspective, a large modern rat would be about half a kilo," said Julien Louys from the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University (ANU).
The research team is now tracing the cause of the rat species' demise. In East Timor, the earliest date of human activity dates back 46,000 years ago. For thousands of years, the early humans in East Timor lived with rats and ate them as well. This was proven by the burn and cut marks on the discovered fossils, which suggests the early humans cooked them by fire.
Humans and large rats co-existed in East Timor for a thousands of years until the rats became extinct. The researchers theorized that the development of metal tools enabled the humans to clear the forest faster and at a much bigger range. Louys believed the giant rats became extinct around 1,000 years ago.
The team believes that the fossil discovery carry insights about the huge impact of deforestation. The giant rats disappeared almost at the same time when metal tools were introduced in East Timor. The team explained that it wasn't the arrival, food preferences and hunting activities of early humans that led to the giant rats' extinction. In fact, it was the loss of the natural habitat due to land clearing and deforestation.
The research team is hoping to trace and analyze early human activities in the Southeast Asian islands. Their activities and impact on the ecosystem could prove valuable to conservation efforts being implemented today to save endangered animal species.
Louys' research is part of Sue O'Connor's Australian Research Council's Laureate titled 'From Sunda to Sahul: Understanding Modern Human Dispersal, Adaptation and Behaviour en route to Australia'. The fossil findings were presented at the Meetings of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology in Texas.