The Philippines, a small country comprising of 7,107 islands, is home to six species of really large rodents called cloud rats—a name coined to these interesting creatures because of the ash-colored fur of a certain species from Luzon, and also because of their nature of going way up tall, hollow trees. Cloud rats are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal, having large hind feet that are highly specialized for arboreal life and large foreclaws used for eating tender young leaves, fruits, and roots. In the wild, they are observed to be either solitary or in pairs, giving birth to one or two offspring. Aside from their sharp foreclaws, these creatures ward off their predators by using their musky odor. The species are classified into two genera, that of Phloeomys (bark-eating mouse) and Crateromys.
The group of giant cloud rats from the genus Phloeomys is comprised of two species. First is the giant cloud rat from northern Luzon, Phloeomys pallidus, locally known as bu-ot. It is the largest of the genus, which can weigh up to two and a half pounds, and is considered the largest rat in the world. Noted for its slender tail and a dark brown mask around the eyes this cloud rat can be found in northern and central Luzon specifically in primary and lowland forests of Benguet, Kalinga-Apayao, and from the Bataan/ Zambales region as verified by a team of researchers headed by Dr. Perry Ong from the University of the Philippines. This particular species is showcased at the Minnesota Zoo and Bronx Zoo where biologists are observing its reproductive and feeding behavior in captivity. Classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (or IUCN) although locally abundant, hunting and habitat degradation is the primary cause of population decline of these endemic species.
The other species from Luzon is known as bugkun or the Southern Luzon giant cloud rat, Phloeomys cumingi. It has a deep mahogany brown fur—a sharp contrast from that of its counterpart in northern Luzon—with a thick-furred tail darker than its coat. This species was recorded in Catanduanes, Camarines Sur, Quezon, Los Baños and Marinduque, usually occupying disturbed lowland forests. The IUCN placed it under the Vulnerable category due to heavy hunting and habitat loss.
The other group is the bushy-tailed cloud rats, also known as cloud runners, from the genus Crateromys with 4 known species. The endangered Dinagat hairy-tailed cloud rat, Crateromys australis, is known only from a single specimen from Dinagat Island and nothing else is known about this species. It is only suspected that it inhibits lowland forest and is probably geographically restricted. With mining as the priority thrust of government in the entire island—in fact, mining areas virtually cover the island’s remaining forests—its biodiversity is surely threatened, and any chance of discovering new information about the species might already be too late.
The Panay bushy-tailed cloud rat, or Panay cloud runner, is the newest species described from this group. Discovered in 1987 but described in 1996, it was called Crateromys heaneyi, named after Dr. Larry Heaney of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It has light fur and black facial markings. Its diet consists mostly of fruits, young corn, and leaves. One captive specimen lived for 8.8 years. Endemic to Panay Island, the specimens where from Mount Baloy-Mount Madja-as Range and is also common along patches of remnant forests and cultivated areas.
Next on the list is the critically endangered Ilin hairy-tailed cloud rat, Crateromys paulus, known only from the small island of Ilin (south of Mindoro), although there are unverified reports of its presence on southern Mindoro. Like its relative species it is fluffy-coated, having a cream-colored underside, and a short, tri-colored bushy tail. It is the smallest of all the cloud rat species in terms of over-all proportions. Some consider this species to be extinct since reports of its presence are scarce after its discovery.
Finally, the largest species from the genus is the Luzon bushy-tailed cloud rat, Crateromys schadenbergi, or yut-yut as it is known among the natives from Benguet, Ifugao, and Mountain Province. It is known to inhibit pine and mossy forests of the Cordilleras and is also commonly observed in oak-pine forests. This species is categorized as vulnerable by the IUCN; habitat loss and hunting as primary causes.
All cloud rat species are endemic to the Philippines, which means they are found nowhere else in the world. The sad part is that all of them are either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. The IUCN is an organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of nature’s diversity, and publishing the Red List of Threatened Species is one of its many accomplishments. The red list provides categories and other information on species such as taxonomy, conservation status, and distribution by using a formulated system designated to determine risk of extinction and criteria. Endemic species like the Ilin hairy-tailed cloud rat (categorized as Critically Endangered), Dinagat hairy-tailed cloud rat (Endangered), and the Southern Luzon giant cloud rat (Vulnerable) are facing a higher risk of global extinction. Probable cause is due to extensive habitat loss, hunting and lack of data for formulating conservation strategies.
Various conservation agencies—both local and international—are making efforts to conserve the country’s biodiversity through research. Lobbying to influential government figures are also being done for stronger laws on wildlife protection, efficient implementation of existing laws, and harsher punishments for illegal traders. The Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines (WCSP) has succeeded in pushing the revised Wildlife Act. The next big step now is to implement this for a more promising future for Philippine biodiversity.
[Credits: Photo of Northern Luzon Slender-Tailed Cloud Rat (William Oliver), Sketch of Luzon Bushy-Tailed Cloud Rat (Vladimir Dinets)]