Scientist Feature: The Malaysian Cave Rat Mystery

Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak & Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz

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Husband and wife team during their visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

What do rats and mice have in common with guinea pigs and hamsters?

They belong to a group of animals known as rodents. Rodents contain some of the biggest families within the animal kingdom.

In this edition we feature PhD candidate from the University of Malaya (UM), Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak, who is working to identify rodent skulls in Malaysian caves. She hails from the Department of Geology, Faculty of Science at UM.

Assisting her in this trip is Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz, who is her husband, and also a trained geologist. For this research trip, the goal is to investigate differences between collected skulls to aid in species recognition.

This study is the first comprehensive survey in Malaysia of how the Muridae fossil group plays an important ecological role in the Quarternary geological time period.

Understanding the paleo-environment

Their visit to Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in April 2016 involved comparisons between full-bodied specimens found in our collection and Ms Islahuda’s rodent skull fragments.

This is a bonus as Ms Islahuda often only has dentition to go by, as it is rare to get a complete skull of fossilised rodents with their teeth intact. Differences are often minute as there are many similarities in morphology (form).

They are now one step closer to determining the identities of their subjects. Ms Islahuda managed to narrow it down to four confirmed genera: Niviventer, Rattus, Maxomys and Chiropodomys. On an even better note, she has established one of the species as the Indomalayan pencil-tailed tree mouse (Chiropodomys glirodes).

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Often Ms Islahuda only has dentition to work with such as this isolated tooth sample. Photo by Ms Islahuda.

There are many aspects that both Mr Aziz and Ms Islahuda find interesting about rodents. For example, the skulls of rodents can be used to determine their age and even their diet, which gives insights to how each species differs and how adaptable they can be.

Ms Islahuda explains that geologists try to reconstruct the paleo-environment to get a glimpse of what life was like millions of years ago. Clues such as fossilised remains of animals found in river sediments often indicate what living conditions were like millions of years ago. Rodents are the perfect study subjects as they do not migrate and live in specialised regions.

Raising the flag for environmental conservation

Their reasons for conducting this research are based on a conservation mantra.

They hope to raise awareness of cave fossil conservation by creating an environmental value for cave ecosystems to protect them from threats such as the construction of temples and collection of bat guano or poop for plant fertiliser.

They attempt to educate people in appreciating this often-misunderstood group of animals. Pest such as brown rats and house mice are only a tiny minority within rodents which cause harm to humans. On the other hand, hundreds of other species play important roles in their ecosystems around the world.

For example, did you know that jungle rats such as the Rajah’s spiny rat – found in our region – help in the seed dispersal of trees which promote the health of the forest? Rodents are also the favourite prey for animals such as snakes and owls!

This was Ms Islahuda’s and Mr Aziz’s first visit to LKCNHM. As part of their investigation they will also head to the natural history museums in Indonesia, Thailand, China and London to seek more answers in solving the identities of their specimens.

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Specimens of Malaysian House rats from LKCNHM. Photo by Ms Islahuda.

LKCNHM is honoured to host researchers and regional experts who contribute to our knowledge and understanding of Southeast Asian biodiversity. These scientists play an integral part in spearheading environmental conservation initiatives that protect native ecosystems.

We wish Ms Islahuda and Mr Aziz success as they continue in their search to determine the mysteries of the elusive rodents of Peninsular Malaysian caves.

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