New rodent species discovered

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Aprile Pazzo was about to call it a day when she noticed that the penguins she was observing seemed strangely agitated. Pazzo, a wildlife biologist, was in Antarctica studying penguins at a remote, poorly explored area along the coast of the Ross Sea. “I was getting ready to release a penguin I had tagged when I heard a lot of squawking,” says Pazzo. “When I looked up, the whole flock had sort of stampeded. They were waddling away faster than I’d ever seen them move.”

Pazzo waded through the panicked birds to find out what was wrong. She found one penguin that hadn’t fled. “It was sinking into the ice as if into quicksand,” she says. Somehow the ice beneath the bird had melted; the penguin was waist deep in slush. Pazzo tried to help the struggling penguin. She grabbed its wings and pulled. With a heave she freed the bird. But the penguin wasn’t the only thing she hauled from the slush. About a dozen small, hairless pink molelike creatures had clamped their jaws onto the penguin’s lower body. Pazzo managed to capture one of the creatures — the others quickly released their grip and vanished into the slush.

Over the next few months Pazzo caught several of the animals and watched others in the wild. She calls the strange new species hotheaded naked ice borers. “They’re repulsive,” says Pazzo. Adults are about six inches long, weigh a few ounces, have a very high metabolic rate — their body temperature is 110 degrees — and live in labyrinthine tunnels carved in the ice.

Perhaps their most fascinating feature is a bony plate on their forehead. Innumerable blood vessels line the skin covering the plate. The animals radiate tremendous amounts of body heat through their “hot plates,” which they use to melt their tunnels in ice and to hunt their favorite prey: penguins.

A pack of ice borers will cluster under a penguin and melt the ice and snow it’s standing on. When the hapless bird sinks into the slush, the ice borers attack, dispatching it with bites of their sharp incisors. They then carve it up and carry its flesh back to their burrows, leaving behind only webbed feet, a beak, and some feathers. “They travel through the ice at surprisingly high speeds, ” says Pazzo, “much faster than a penguin can waddle.”

Pazzo’s discovery may also help solve a long-standing Antarctic mystery: What happened to the heroic polar explorer Philippe Poisson, who disappeared in Antarctica without a trace in 1837? “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a big pack of ice borers got him,” says Pazzo. “I’ve seen what these things do to emperor penguins — it isn’t pretty — and emperors can be as much as four feet tall. Poisson was about 5 foot 6. To the ice borers, he would have looked like a big penguin.”


Originally appeared in Discover Magazine on April 1st, 1995.

Comments

  1. #1 Mystyk
    April 1, 2009

    And a happy “April Fool’s Day” to you as well.
    ;)

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    April 1, 2009

    “their body temperature is 110 degrees”

    Luckily they live in ice. Elsewhere their blood would boil.

  3. #3 Romeo Vitelli
    April 1, 2009

    Aprile Pazzo and Philippe Poisson. Hee.

  4. #4 Ana
    April 1, 2009

    I’m not eating this one either…

  5. #5 José
    April 1, 2009

    First they grow a human ear on the back of a mouse, and now they grow human testicles on the head of a naked mole rat. I think the poor thing’s suffering from jock itch as well. When will science learn not to play God!

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    April 1, 2009

    Ana, these cook themselves. So they would make bad Rodent Sushi.

  7. #7 ppnl
    April 1, 2009

    I remember when this story first appeared in Discover. There was some blow back from it because it fooled a lot of people who should have known better.

  8. #8 DuWayne
    April 1, 2009

    Ok, the mutant naked mole rat makes me very, very happy. Or it could just be the last of the Seroquel finally having dissipated. Either way, it’s a beautiful morning and the mutant made it even better…

  9. #9 Aaron Luchko
    April 1, 2009

    Nice, it had me until ‘”They travel through the ice at surprisingly high speeds, ” says Pazzo, “much faster than a penguin can waddle.”‘. At which point I remembered what day it was :)

  10. #10 Kate
    April 1, 2009

    Ok, that got me. EVEN THOUGH I have been reading up recently on the evolution of mammalian body temperature regulation. You would think I would have known better…

  11. #11 Andrew
    April 1, 2009

    I remember the original well. And it was followed by many letters to the editor a month or two later

  12. #12 Ruth
    April 1, 2009

    My favorite line:

    a big pack of ice borers got him

  13. #13 RBH
    April 1, 2009

    That story actually isn’t as implausible as it might seem. After all, every fall snowbirds migrate south, laying iceworm eggs as they go. That white stuff on the ground in the winter is the broken shells of iceworm eggs, the iceworm larvae having hatched out and burrowed into the ground to over-winter, emerging in the warmth of spring as slush puppies.

  14. #14 Cath the Canberra Cook
    April 2, 2009

    Really, Lassi Hippeläinen, if you’re going to read American-based blog, you should learn to recognise Fahrenheit. 110C, now that’s obviously ridiculous. The rest it, of course, perfectly plausible. :)

  15. #15 AKA
    May 21, 2009

    We should play with science to better ourselves and to figure out the real meaning of things and creatures. Don’t be scared of what might come of it because hey “sh*t happens” and we control the earth no one else, this is our lives and we should know everything about it. The whole thing about trying to play so called “GOD” is funny….its belief not reality…step into the real world

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