For conservation biologists such as Robert Timmins, an early-morning walk through a Laotian fresh-food market is a quick way to survey the wildlife in the surrounding forest.
“The Lao eat pretty much anything they find,” he said.
In February 1996, he spotted what appeared to be two dead squirrels amid the vegetables. “I picked them up and realized they were something pretty special,” he said. Struck by their short, hairy tails, stubby legs, long faces and dark, manelike neck fur, he bought them for a few cents.
Although they were just groceries in Laos, to scientists, after eight years of study and DNA analyses, the animals have emerged as not just a new species or genus, but an entirely new family of mammals – the first to be described since the Thai hog-nosed bat in 1974.
The locals called them kha-nyou. They told Timmins the critters are nocturnal, scamper among the limestone formations of central Laos, and – unlike mice and rats – give birth to just one offspring at a time.
Some westerners have begun calling them Laotian rock rats. But they are neither squirrels nor rats.
In a paper published in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity, Timmins and his colleagues say the kha-nyou – officially “Laonastes aenigmamus” – are the only known survivors of an ancient family that dates back 50 million years, distant kin to today’s African mole rats and guinea pigs.
Timmins thinks of kha-nyou as a sort of “spineless porcupine” and another argument for the preservation of forest land in Indochina. New species of rats and shrew are described there almost yearly, he said, adding, “I’m not sure how much longer it’s going to last.”