The Machu Picchu Arboreal Chinchilla Rat – It Lives!
A mammal the size of a cat – that has long been thought to be extinct – has actually been found living and well beneath the world-famous Incan archaeological site of Machu Picchu.
The Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat was first discovered in 1912, inside some 400-year-old Incan pottery. However, all that remained of the rodent’s existence were two sets of skeletal remains, and their location in the burial site suggested they had been used for food.
Because there had been no other evidence of the chinchilla rat at that time or since, the rodent was believed to have gone extinct long before the discovery, possibly since the 1500s. Researchers thought it likely that they had been hunted as a food source to the point of extinction. And the fact that no one had seen hide nor hair of one since then supported this conclusion.
That is, until 2009 when Roberto Quispe, a park ranger at the Machu Picchu National Park, claimed to have seen a living specimen of the creature close to the original burial site.
Since 2012, a team of scientists has been trying to confirm Quispe’s discovery. This team was led by Dr Gerardo Ceballos from the Instituto de Ecología UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and mammalogy curator Dr Horacio Zeballos from the Arequipa Museum of Natural History in Peru.
The team headed down to the site and tracked down the elusive creature, finding it in cloud forests (a type of rainforest) near another archaeological site on the Incan trail heading towards Machu Picchu. This confirmed that the chinchilla rat had never been extinct, and the scientists were able to find more of the rodents in the national park and in the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
Dr Ceballos explained that though both locations are well managed, with staff and infrastructure, the chinchilla rat is likely to be endangered, possibly down to the destruction of their habitat. This would also explain the rarity of the creatures.
However, “it seems that the federal government has become more interested in reducing deforestation in the national park and sanctuary in recent years,” he pointed out.
“I am optimistic that the discovery of the [chinchilla rat] and other new species will help to strengthen the protection of the native forests,” Dr Ceballos concluded.
The Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat is not the only discovery the team made on their trips to the archaeological site. They think they have found six additional species, all new to science: a new aquatic mammal, a lizard, and four new species of frog.
It is wonderful that some of the most famous places in the world are still able to hold so much mystery, and protect the secret lives of creatures we didn’t even know existed – or thought long gone.