Red-crested tree rat is a surprise, species apparently not extinct


It hardly seems possible that in 2011 new species of vertebrates continue to be discovered or rediscovered.

And I’m not sure which is more exciting — finding a new species or rediscovering one thought to be extinct.

But every year one or two reports of an unknown or forgotten bird or frog appear, usually from the tropics. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I learned that at 9:30 p.m. May 4, 2011, at the El Dorado Nature Reserve in northern Colombia, a guinea-pig-sized rodent, not seen since 1898, showed up at an eco-lodge.

The red-crested tree rat stayed for almost two hours while two research volunteers took the first photos ever of a creature the world thought was extinct.

The reserve was established in 2005 by Fundacion ProAves — Colombia’s foremost bird conservation organization — with support from American Bird Conservancy, World Land Trust-U.S., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fundacion Loro Parque, and Conservation International.


A press release from the American Bird Conservancy reported on Tuesday that the nocturnal rodent was rediscovered by Lizzie Noble and Simon McKeown — two volunteer researchers with ProAves monitoring endangered amphibians. It posed for photographs — including close-ups — before calmly venturing back to the forest.

The red-crested tree rat, “just shuffled up the handrail near where we were sitting and seemed totally unperturbed by all the excitement he was causing. We are absolutely delighted to have rediscovered such a wonderful creature after just a month of volunteering with ProAves,” said Lizzie Noble a volunteer from England.

“We are so proud that our El Dorado Nature Reserve has provided a safe haven for this enigmatic little guy to survive. The discovery exemplifies why we buy forested properties known to be important for endangered wildlife yet at imminent risk of being destroyed. We are also proud that our volunteers made the discovery of the decade, and hope future eco-tourists will see the mammal at the reserve,” said Lina Daza, Executive Director of ProAves.

“The El Dorado Nature Reserve represents the ultimate Noah’s Ark, protecting the last populations of many critically endangered and endemic flora and fauna; it’s a living treasure trove like no other on earth,” said Dr. Paul Salaman, the scientist from the World Land Trust-U.S., who confirmed the identity of the species.

“Had we not worked with our partners to establish this reserve, it is reasonable to believe this species would still remain something that was only talked about in science journals. Now we need to work with our partners to take steps to see that this species continues to be a part of our world,” said George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy.

Critically endangered

The red-crested tree rat will now likely be designated as Critically Endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species criteria. A major concern, however, is that much of the tree rat’s potential remaining range is over run with feral domestic cats that prey on native fauna.

Yes, feral cats are as big a threat to native wildlife in South America as they are in the U.S. In 2005, Dr. Louise Emmons of the Smithsonian Institution examined the only two skin specimens of the tree rat known at that time.

It is 18 inches long from head to the tip of the tail and is distinguished by a mane-like band of reddish fur around its neck and a black and white tail. The 2,000-acre El Dorado reserve is named after the legendary lost city of gold, and is internationally known as a unique destination for eco-tourists. It is located in cloud forest habitat at 5,900 feet, just two hours’ drive from the popular coastal tourist city of Santa Marta.

The reserve and adjacent lands host the highest concentration of continental, range-restricted bird species found anywhere in the world, all of which have their entire or major stronghold populations there.

“This discovery marks the beginning of a major effort to save the red-crested tree rat and heralds the start of a global initiative in search of lost mammal species,” said Salaman.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my web site,

High resolution photographs of the red-crested tree rat are available at:


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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