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The Smithsonian's 'rat tale'

By Jackie Trescott

Rat sightings are usually not good, or entertaining stories.

But Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has found one he likes.

When Clough was reviewing some of the successes of the last year at Monday's Regents meeting, he smiled, even chuckled, when he mentioned the discovery of a new species of rat.

Just what we needed, most in the audience were thinking. But new information about the natural world excites a lot of people, and Clough leads the pack.

Kristofer Helgen, a Smithsonian biologist, was investigating a gigantic crater in Papua New Guinea when a local scout noticed a huge rat. Helgen and Muse Opiang, a biologist with the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research, plunged into the crater, pulled back some brush and there was the rat. Previously unknown and unseen, the rat weighed nearly 3.5 pounds and measured 32 inches. It is silvery gray with thick woolly fur and is a vegetarian. And because it has been isolated from humans, it is tame.

The cave-dwelling giant woolly rat of Papua New Guinea. (Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution)

Helgen was working on a film about a remote rainforest and his team was exploring around an extinct volcano with a crater that is 2 1/2 miles wide. The expedition was filmed by the Natural History Unit of the BBC, a lucky stroke for the scientists. "Our hearts were in our throats," said Helgen, the curator of mammals at the National Museum of Natural History. "It was all the more incredible that the BBC was there to film it."

Now the story has become one of Clough's favorites. It makes his point that the science work at the Smithsonian is a noteworthy enterprise. And he will gladly bring up the rat as proof of that activity.

* * Video: The BBC's take on the new discovery in Papua New Guinea * *

By Jacqueline Trescott  | September 21, 2010; 1:31 PM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Museums, Smithsonian  | Tags:  Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, discovery of new rat  
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