Thursday, 2 May 2013

What Happened to Hong Kong’s Huang’s Rat

In Hong Kong in the 1960s there were two types of rat on the hillsides. In 2013 they are still there but their names have changed completely. One of these was called Huang’s Rat (Rattus huang).

I had been introduced to Huang's Rat even before going to Hong Kong. In the early 1960s some had been sent to London Zoo and had bred in the old Rodent House. I was given some of the offspring — they were beautiful animals which I reluctantly had to pass on to another rodent enthusiast. While looking at recent publications on Hong Kong mammals I realised that Huang’s Rat had disappeared from the lists.

To cut a long story short, Huang’s Rat, which had a number of common names (Eastern Spiny-haired Rat, Chinese Spiny-backed Rat) and has acquired even more (Chestnut Spiny Rat, Chestnut Rat, Chestnut White-bellied Rat), is now Niviventer fulvescens.

Huang’s Rat was originally described by John Lewis James Bonhote (1875-1922) as Mus huang in 1905. By the 1930s it had already been included within Rattus fulvescens and is shown as Rattus fulvescens huang in Allen’s (1938) The Mammals of China and Mongolia

Whatever the name, Niviventer fulvescens is an extremely attractive animal. PM Marshall summed up the appearance in her Wild Mammals of Hong Kong (1967):

Colour: rich orange with pure white belly.Distinctive features: rich orange coloured fur with small pale spines (thick stiff hairs) interspersed with the hairs on the back. Undersides of body and tail white.

In that excellent but now sadly discontinued publication, Porcupine, the newsletter of the then Department of Ecology and Biodiversity, University of Hong Hong, Richard Corlett described this species as cute and lovable (Number 23, July 2001), a designation with which I can only agree.

That was the easy one. Wait for the next species of rat in Hong Kong to see how complicated things can get and have got.