New Species Of Rat Slurps Worms Like Spaghetti

By Max Eddy on August 23, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

Shrew Rat
Vermidax is a new species of shrew-rat which doesn't chew its Earth worm prey. (Photo: Biology Letters)

The defining feature of all rodents is their unique gnawing teeth, which have allowed the creatures to be enormously successful all across the world. Now, a newly discovered species of shrew-rat differentiates itself from its fellow rodents by having completely different teeth and slurping instead of chewing its prey.

The new genus and species of shrew-rat was discovered on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. After examining the shew-rat's unusual mouth and stomach contents, researchers concluded that the animal must live primarily on Earth worms. Seizing on this, they named their discovery Paucidentomys vermidax, which translates roughly to "few tooth mouse worm devourer."

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A description of the new species was published yesterday in the journal Biology Letters.

Typical rodents have long, distinctive incisors perfect for gnawing on hard materials. Additionally, most rodents also have some grinding molars in the back of their mouths, which help prepare food for digestion. These features are common amongst the 2,200 species of rodents, but not with vermidax. Instead, the worm devourer has no molars at all. However, researchers note that some evolutionary remnant of molars can be seen beneath a thin layer of semi-translucent bone.

More dramatic still is that instead of long incisors, vermidax has what the researchers call "bicuspid upper incisors."

In their study, the researchers say that it seems likely vermidax abandoned the typical rodent tooth arrangement in order to focus on its invertebrate prey. "With the transition to soft-bodied prey, the mouth was relieved of the need to process food by chewing," write the researchers. "And therefore was free to evolve according to the pressures of food acquisition."

Shrew-rats are already are already known to be somewhat strange animals. Their name comes from the shrew-rats' long, pointed snout and generally shrew-like appearance. Additionally, many shrew-rats also cannot gnaw and may have reduced molars. Vermidax, however, takes this trend to the extreme.

Because of its unusual teeth, vermidax takes an equally unusual approach to eating. Speaking with FOX News, the study's co-author Anang Achmadi explained that vermidax has a two-step eating process. First, it slurps down a worm like spaghetti, using its small incisors to cut its prey into pieces.

It then spits out the segments, and proceeds to swallow each piece whole.

The ability of rodents to gnaw and chew has given them a major advantage, as they can turn to a variety of food sources in order to survive. With its specialized teeth and eating habits, vermidax is different as it is dedicated to a single food source. Evolving on an island, vermidax is nicely isolated allowing it to become so specialized.

However, that isolated island home is under threat. Achmadi warned FOX News in his interview that logging and mining on the island could upset the regions unique ecology, and threaten unique species like vermidax. Hopefully the slurping worm devourer won't meet such a grim fate.

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