For decades, the people of the Solomon Island of Vanganu knew of the vika. They saw vikas while climbing trees to hunt possums, and wrote stories and sung songs about them. But the animals remained unknown to science—until now. 

The elusive vika, which is an oversize rat, lives in the tops of trees in thick vegetation on difficult terrain in a remote and rainy island. “It’s quite rare and very difficult to find,” said Tyrone Lavery, a mammalogist in Australia. Try as they might, researchers just couldn’t find an individual, dead or alive, to describe.

Their efforts were substantial. Working with the people of Vanganu, scientists climbed trees, set up traps to capture the animals, and even used camera traps to photograph whatever might be scurrying past. All they could find were piles of nuts, with circular holes chewed in them, deposited at the bottom of trees.

Finally someone captured the little animal as it scurried out of a felled tree, and sent the body to scientists. A group of naturalists, including Lavery at the University of Queensland, in conjunction with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, studied and documented the unique animal, also known as  Uromys vika or Vanganu giant rat. A study published today in the Journal of Mammology describes what they found. 

Although the rodent is similar to other species of the Uromys genus, visible differences in the skull and genetic testing determined that vikas are a unique species. The yellow, nocturnal, tree-dwelling rodent can weigh up to two pounds—four times the size of a regular black rat. From nose to tail, they are about a foot and a half long. 

Vanganu, like each of the Solomon Islands, is geographically isolated, meaning that much of its wildlife is unique to that island alone. Because of its rarity, the scientists who authored the paper say that the giant rat will quickly earn a designation of critically endangered.

That recognition could have a considerable impact on the people of the island as well. “We’re hoping that it will help attract some support for some conservation in the Vanganu area,” Lavery said.

The people who live on Vanganu live a subsistence-based lifestyle and face challenges with loggers who harvest their forests. “This community has the vision that they don’t want the logging in their tribal land, and they want to preserve their forest,” said Lavery. With the designation of this arboreal rat as critically endangered, Lavery explained that the trees that are habitat to vika may get special protection.

In other words, this unusual rat might just help save the home that's kept it hidden for so long.