JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
For more than a century, scientists had seen no sign of the red-crested tree rat, a guinea pig-sized animal with a fiery red patch of fur on its head and a long black and white tail, until two weeks ago when one of the tree rats nearly walked up to Lizzie Noble, a conservation volunteer in Colombia.
Lizzie Noble joins us now by Skype from El Dorado, Colombia. Welcome to the program.
Ms. LIZZIE NOBLE (Conservation Volunteer): Hi, thanks, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: So how did this happen? When did you see the little guy?
Ms. NOBLE: It's kind of crazy. We were just - the two of us volunteering here -we're just heading off to bed one evening and it just crawled up the stairs towards us and just quite happily sat there and looked at us. And we looked at it and realized it was something special because it's got distinct features and quite interesting markings.
LUDDEN: Well, it's called a rat, but it doesn't really look like that. What does it look like?
Ms. NOBLE: It looks more like a guinea pig, I guess, with a long rat - hairy rat tail. And it's got different segments of colors. The head was fiery red and the body is a different red. And the tail - the end of the tail looked like it's been dipped in white paint, so it was quite interesting to look at. Very cute...
LUDDEN: Cute, but did you have any idea this was something special?
Ms. NOBLE: We knew it was something different and something you don't see everyday, but we didn't realize how special it was. Otherwise, I think we would have tried to keep it around the place. But we just quite happily took photos and thought, I will find out what it is later.
LUDDEN: OK. Now, you did find out what it was. You emailed it - emailed photos, is that right? And we also are joined by the person who confirmed that this was something special. Paul Salaman, he's the director of conservation for World Land Trust-USA.
When Lizzie Noble spotted that creature that some are calling the Pokemon rat, she sent the images to Paul to find out what it was. And he joins us from his office in Northern Virginia. Welcome.
Dr. PAUL SALAMAN (Conservation Director, World Land Trust-US): Hi there, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: I can imagine you must have been frustrated because you had actually sent a team to look for this red-crested tree rat in 2007, is that right?
Dr. SALAMAN: That's right. We spent two years looking for this critter. And we knew it was very special. And the last hope of finding it was in the El Dorado reserve, but, of course, when I received the email and opened up the picture, I was just ecstatic. I instantly knew what it was. And I immediately got on Skype and contacted Lizzie there, and told her what she had.
LUDDEN: Now, tell me why is this creature so unique?
Dr. SALAMAN: Because it is a monotypic genus, which means that it's not just a unique species. It's to a higher level, taxonomic level. In other words, in its relations within the family of rodents, it's very unclear, it's got some unique characteristics that are not shared by other species. So it really is very special.
And, of course, it's only found in this one area, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of northern Colombia. You know, it's the only place to find it.
LUDDEN: And, in fact, the last time, it was sighted, is it - am I correct, 113 years ago it was in this area?
Dr. SALAMAN: 1898, that's correct.
LUDDEN: And how do you verify? Is it just the sight? What - how else have you been able to verify this is it?
Dr. SALAMAN: Oh, from the type of description. When it was originally described 110 years ago, they gave a good description and information, and on the basis of that, we were able to identify it. But also, it's in a very unique area. There's no other species (technical difficulties) to it. And this is a pretty distinctive critter.
LUDDEN: Are you going to send another team to try and find it again?
Dr. SALAMAN: Well, Lizzie's there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUDDEN: Lizzie, are you going to change your plan?
Ms. NOBLE: (Unintelligible) I'm quite happy here, looking for it. I'm having a great time.
LUDDEN: Are you really? Are you really going out? Now, you've been working with the ProAves Foundation down there, which is a big nature reserve. Are you kind of changing plans to go look for this again?
Ms. NOBLE: Well, we put out a few mammal traps. And we're going out every night, trying to find it. And we're hot on the case, but we're not quite there yet. I'm hopeful too.
LUDDEN: What happens if you do?
Ms. NOBLE: If we find it?
Ms. NOBLE: We'll try and keep one so that we can get DNA samples. And we'll get hold of Paul and see if we can get someone with more knowledge on tree rats, I guess.
LUDDEN: And, Paul, what would that mean if the red-crested tree rat is alive and well, if there's more than one?
Dr. SALAMAN: Well, yes, that's the key. We really need to establish the status of this. It is a very special species. It's only found in this last refuge in the nature reserve, El Dorado Nature reserve, which is a wonderful eco tourism destination. But we really need to establish how many there are and start implementing conversation actions. We're particularly worried that there's a feral cat population in the area, and they will only certainly pray on this, you know, guinea pig-sized rodent. So we're really eager to try and relocate some of these feral cats.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, good luck to both of you. Lizzie Noble and Paul Salaman, thanks so much for taking the time.
Dr. SALAMAN: Thank you so much.
Ms. NOBLE: Thank you so much.
LUDDEN: You can see a picture of the red-crested tree rat on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with an update on the situation on the damaged nuclear power plant in Japan. Monday, Neal Conan is back. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.