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See Inside August 2005

Kha-Nyou Smell a Rat?

Tracking down real rock rodents and imaginary Amazon apes
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
On May 20 I was in my office "working," a euphemism for surfing the Web, when I noticed that two articles from very different news sources had a common theme. The stories brought up many questions. Was life imitating art? Was art actually cribbing from life? If I asked my tax adviser's opinion during lunch, was the meal deductible?

In fact, lunch was what connected the two news pieces. The first story, which appeared in the Australian and was datelined May 19, carried the title "KEBAB MEAT RODENT A NEW SPECIES." The lead paragraph noted that "an odd-looking rodent, spotted in a food market in Laos where it was going to be turned into a kebab, has turned out to be not only a new species but also the first member of a new family of mammals to be identified in more than three decades." The rodent is known locally as kha-nyou, as well as rock rat. The article also stated that "the discovery was made by Robert Timmins, a member of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who spotted a dead rock rat as it was about to be grilled."

I thought of comedian Lewis Black's take on Europeans seeing North American fauna for the first time--"Holy &!@%, look at that! What the @!#% is that? [Pause.] Let's eat it."--and continued Web surfing. The next stop was the Onion, which calls itself "America's Finest News Source," despite, or because of, the fact that it simply makes its news up. I was thus startled to see the headline "NEW, DELICIOUS SPECIES DISCOVERED." The Onion story, datelined May 18 and written in flawless wire-service style, began, "Manaus, Brazil--An international team of scientists conducting research in the Amazon River Basin announced the discovery of a formerly unknown primate species" that was "an amazing biological find" and "tastes wonderful with a currant glaze."

Further research turned up the fact that the WCS had issued a press release about the kha-nyou on May 11 and that the Scientific American Web site actually mentioned the find on May 12. (Note to self: Holy &!@%, Scientific American has a Web site: www.sciam.com! Let's read it.) Did the Onion stoop to relying on real news for its ideas, basing its Brazilian primate, "informally known as the delicacy ape," on the kha-nyou?

Answering this question was going to require true investigative journalism (which stinks because it really is work). A call to the Onion revealed that they had come up with the delicacy ape piece well before the kha-nyou news broke and that the timing of publication was purely coincidental. "But we could make up a story if you want us to," my source there said, in finest Onion fashion.

I next called Robert Timmins at his home in Madison, Wis., and found out that he had in fact beaten the Onion by years--he first spotted the kha-nyou in 1996. "It was very early, just after dawn," he recalled. "I was at a fresh food market, where everybody brings in their vegetables from farms, animals from the forest, fish from the river." The kha-nyou was for sale next to some vegetables. "I knew immediately it was something I had never seen before," Timmins said.

It took two years to get specimens out of Laos and another seven for Paulina Jenkins of London's Natural History Museum and C. William Kilpatrick of the University of Vermont to do a complete scientific analysis of the creature and prepare a long, detailed paper for publication in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity. (Taxonomy is really work.)

They gave the kha-nyou the Latin name Laonastes aenigmamus, in the new family Laonastidae. Laonastes translates to "inhabitant of the rocks of Laos." Aenigmamus means "riddle mouse," which "alludes to the enigmatic taxonomic position of this rodent," the journal article explains. Is it closest to the mole rats, or porcupines, or even chinchillas? That's unclear. Where would the kha-nyou itself prefer to be located? Just not next to the vegetables, thank you.

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