Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Ecology

Notes on the External Morphology, Ecology, and Origin of Megalomys Desmarestii (Sigmodontinae, Cricetidae, Rodentia), the Extinct Giant Rat of Martinique Island, Lesser Antilles/Markmed Martinique'i Saare (Vaikesed Antillid) Valjasurnud Hiidroti Megalomys Desmarestii (Sigmodontinae, Cricetidae, Rodentia) Valismorfoloogia, Okoloogia Ja Polvnemise Kohta

Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Ecology

Notes on the External Morphology, Ecology, and Origin of Megalomys Desmarestii (Sigmodontinae, Cricetidae, Rodentia), the Extinct Giant Rat of Martinique Island, Lesser Antilles/Markmed Martinique'i Saare (Vaikesed Antillid) Valjasurnud Hiidroti Megalomys Desmarestii (Sigmodontinae, Cricetidae, Rodentia) Valismorfoloogia, Okoloogia Ja Polvnemise Kohta

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The extinct Antillean giant rats of the genus Megalomys (Sigmodontinae, Cricetidae) are known from Pleistocene-Holocene fossils, Pre-Columbian midden deposits, and the modern time. They may formerly have occurred on most of the islands of the Lesser Antilles (Alen, 1942; McFarlane & Lundberg, 2002). Four species were described in the genus: Megalomys desmarestii (Fischer, 1829) (known only from Martinique), M. luciae Forsyth Major, 1901 (known only from Santa Lucia), M. audreyae Hopwood, 1926 (known only from Barbuda), and M. curacensis Hooijer, 1959 (known only from Curacao) (McFarlane & Lundberg, 2002; Musser & Carleton, 2005). All species of Megalomys are extinct, possibly all due to anthropogenic causes. Megalomys luciae lived on St. Lucia Island until at least 1849, and M. desmarestii probably survived until 1902 on Martinique (Alen, 1942; McFarlane & Lundberg, 2002). According to Musser & Carleton (2005), a combination of features suggests that the close relatives of Megalomys may be sought among certain derived oryzomyines, such as Oryzomys sensu stricto, or Nectomys.

The last survivor, the giant rat of Martinique or Desmarest's pilorie, Megalomys desmarestii (Fig. 1), was the largest species in the genus. It had a head and body length of about 36 cm, and its tail was only slightly shorter (Trouessart, 1885). There are many factors that may potentially have brought about the extinction of the pilorie: hunting and extermination by people, anthropogenic deforestation of the island, and the introduction of cats, dogs, and mongooses. Its final extinction, however, has been attributed to the great volcanic eruption of Monte Pelee in 1902, the slopes of which seem to have been the pilorie's last refuge (Alen, 1942; Nowak, 1991).

Available information on the ecology of M. desmarestii is very scarce. It was summarized by Alen (1942) in the two paragraphs reproduced below:

   The Martinique musk-rat was first mentioned in literature by Du
   Tertre in 1654, in
   his "Histoire Generale des Isles de S. Christophe, de la
   Guadeloupe, de la Martinique,
   et Autres dans l'Amerique". He did not know of it from any of the
   French
   islands except Martinique, where, he relates, it was commonly eaten
   by people ...
   It was said to live in burrows in the ground and against it the
   colonists waged war
   on account of its destructive habits in their plantations. In
   addition to human
   enemies, the large serpents of Martinique also attacked it. Du
   Tertre mentions
   killing a large snake in the stomach of which was one of these rats
   "almost as big
   as a cat".

   ... The late Dr. G. Kinsley Noble, who in 1914 visited Guadeloupe
   ... was told by
   Mr. Delphin Duchamp, a former resident of Martinique, that "about
   five years
   before the eruption of Mount Pelee [1902] there used to exist in
   great numbers
   among the cocoanut plantations along the Riviere Blanche, close to
   St. Pierre, a
   species of rat which was black as coal on the back and white as
   milk below. When
   adult this creature was some 40 cm long without the tail. I killed
   many of them,
   for their flesh is very delicate. The negroes call this rat the
   pilorie. It lives almost
   entirely in [? among--G.A.] the cocoanut trees but will take to
   water when driven
   from shelter.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

I am aware of no additional data on the ecology of the pilorie. All later authors just repeat or paraphrase the information cited above (e.g. Nowak, 1991 and internet resources). Given that this is the extent of existing information, what can we learn from it? (1) The pilories were somehow connected with trees, probably feeding on their parts or/and having arboreal habits ("Exist among the cocoanut plantations", "It lives almost entirely in [? among] the cocoanut trees"). (2) Probably they were partly subterranean ("It was said to live in burrows in the ground. …

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