Laotian Rock Rat

Rapid response to rock rat revelations

Wikipedia breaks news of new species before mainstream sources

Recent news from the world of zoology has once again brought to the fore Wikipedia's ability to stay ahead of mainstream sources when dealing with current events. Following on from breaking the news of Andrea Dworkin's death (see archived story), an article on the newly-discovered Laotian rock rat appeared a matter of days after the publication of a journal article announcing the new species, and well in advance of the news reaching other outlets.

Long history behind rare discovery

In spite of the fact that Wikipedia was one of the first places to have this information, it could still be said that it took years for the information to appear. The rock rat was actually discovered nearly ten years ago, but the intervening time was necessary for the discoverers to test and confirm that this was in fact a new species. The foot-long rodent was first noticed by researchers in 1996, when a team visiting Laos found the rat being sold as bushmeat at a market.

Researchers Robert Timmins and Mark Robinson sent specimens of the rat to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis, and examination of the creature's DNA revealed it to be an entirely new species, more closely related to rodents found in Africa and South America than others found in Southeast Asia.

The rock rat (known in Lao as the kha-nyou) is not only a new species, but has become the first known member of both a new genus and a new family as well. Such a discovery is very rare, the last being over thirty years ago when a new family of bats was discovered in Thailand.

Announcing the discovery

Many of the most significant and remarkable discoveries in many fields of science tend to be reported in the journals Science and Nature. Science journalists monitor these publications for breaking news stories. However, in this case the discoverers of the Laotian Rock Rat published their findings in the much more specialized journal Systematics and Biodiversity, in an article published on 18 April 2005. Mainstream news sources didn't pick up on the discovery until it was publicised by the Wildlife Conservation Society in a press release on 11 May.

Weeks before that, though, Aranae had picked up on the announcement and had created an article on the mysterious creature. The article, created on 23 April, was mentioned on the Main Page in the Did you know section two days later. It also served as an opportunity for Wikinews to scoop other media sources about the discovery, as Aranae published a separate article there on 23 April (New rodent discovery leads to new mammal family). Aranae later said "I'm interested in rodent evolution/systematics/taxonomy and recognized that this is just about as big of a story as that subject matter can ever produce. It bothered me that no one seemed to care so I did what I could to propagate the story as much as possible."

Following the WCS press release announcing the Laotian rock rat on 11 May, several magazines and websites picking up on the news pointed their readers towards Wikipedia's article, including the New Scientist [1] and the website of the Natural History Museum [2].

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