Rodents of Unusual Size Lead Scientist to Pleistoscene Petroglyphs

One of my family’s favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It has pirates, sword fights, giants (ok, really only one) and true love. What is not to like?

In fact, I love everything about the movie except for one scene, and that is the fire swamp and its rodents of unusual size (or RUSes as they are referred to in the movie). My complaint about this particular scene is that while the hero is being attacked by one of these creatures, the heroine can do nothing more useful than stand about and scream. As a result, from the first time they discovered the movie my children have been required to recite the following before they can watch it: “If I am ever in a swamp and my companion is attacked by a large rodent, I will NOT stand about and scream; I will pick up the sword and save them.” 

However, after reading a release from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, about one of their discoveries, I think I may have to amend this statement. CSIRO researcher (and rat expert) Dr. Ken Aplin was searching for fossilized bones of giant rats in a well-know cave in East Timor when he happened to look up at the wall to see a panel of carved faces looking back at him.

 The petroglyph faces were stylized frontal views, and included one with a headdress with rays coming from it. Uranium isotope dating has placed the age of this face as 10,000 to 12,000 years old, which would make them from late in the Pleistocene period. The carvings are larger than life, suggesting that they were people of importance to those who carved their likeness into the stone.

The cave where the carvings were found in is called Lene Hara Cave, a sandstone cave that has been well-known since the 1960s for archeological discoveries including rock art paintings, tools and other evidence of human occupation. Fish hooks and other items have dated to around 35,000 years ago, indicating that the island of Timor was occupied by people beginning around this time. The petroglyphs discovered by Dr. Aplin are the only such petroglyphs to be found to date on Timor, as well as the only rock art in the islands of south-east Asia to date back to the Pleistocene period.

That a find of this magnitude was made in  a well-studied cave should serve as a reminder to all of us that discovery can happen anywhere. Sometimes it only takes a change in our perspective to change everything. All Dr. Aplin had to do was look up from the floor of the cave. The cave wasn’t new, scientists had been studying it for over four decades; the only thing that changed was how Dr. Aplin looked at it.

As for those giant rats that Dr. Aplin was looking for? His excavations on Timor have uncovered the remains of the largest rat know to have lived.  This “RUS” lived 1,000 to 2,000 years ago and weighed around 13 pounds. 

What about the amendment to my required “Princess Bride” statement? How about this:

 “… and once the RUS is dispatched, I will take the time to look at the world around me.”

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Kelly Grooms

Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation
Kelly earned her B.S. in Genetics from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Prior to coming to Promega, she worked for biotech companies in San Diego and Madison. Kelly lives just outside Madison with her husband, son and daughter. Kelly collects hobbies including jewelry artistry, reading, writing, photography and knitting. She would like to be an avid runner, as evidenced by her growing collection of running gear and her single half-marathon finishers t-shirt.

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