Southern Ocean GasEx Blog

Dispatches from the Southern Ocean Gas Exchange Experiment

Amphibious Rodents

Posted by sogasex on April 1, 2008

By David Ho (LDEO) and Pete Strutton (Oregon State University)

Despite the years of planning that have gone into SO GasEx, we should never discount the role of serendipity in pushing back the frontiers of science. Penicillin, Teflon®, Post-it® Notes, Formula 409®, Viagra®, and indeed the Americas themselves all owe their discovery to an element of luck. So it is that one of the major discoveries of SO GasEx actually hasn’t been about air-sea gas exchange at all, but has been the first reported sighting of the Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel (Sciurus australisaqua) in almost a century. It is a rarely seen, and therefore assumed to be extinct, creature described in the travel diaries of Charles Darwin, Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, and Francis Drake. In fact, Ernest Shackelton and his crew are believed to have survived on seals caught using these amphibious rodents as bait.

For those who have not had the privilege of seeing one first hand, the Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel is substantially larger than an eastern gray squirrel that one often finds in New York City. In the aforementioned diaries, there are descriptions of these rodents that suggest that they could grow to the size of capybaras. The Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel is mostly white with some brown and black speckles, and characterized by its smooth hairless body, except for the white bushy tail.

We consulted Walter Rodin from Department of Zoology at Université Paris, who specializes in giant rodents. He believes that the Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel is descended from a species of rodent which underwent an evolutionary explosion during the Miocene and Pliocene (2 to 23 million years ago), creating many species of rodent in what is now Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.

Our news about the Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel, embargoed still because we are awaiting decision from Science Magazine, is in line with the recent announcement of the discovery of new species of giant sea creatures in the Southern Ocean. The emergence of these creatures, including the Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel, could be a result of climate change, although no effort has been made to study the connection.

twiggy-scaled.jpg

This is not a Southern Ocean amphibious squirrel

bad-squirrel-scaled.jpg

Neither is this

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