About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Ninja rats of the Bumbun

A studly wood rat with an addiction to peanut butter lives about 50 yards from the house. For the past week I’ve put him through a series of climbing trials. But before I post that blog I want to share a deep secret—my fascination with the climbing ability of rats. It started the night of October 21, 1991 in peninsular Malaysia’s national park—Taman Negara.

We had decided to sleep 30 feet above the jungle in the "Bumbun" ("Boomboom" is close enough)—a wildlife observation blind. The elevated cabin was big enough to sleep 12 people, and rested solidly on massive posts. It looked like a titan gazing over a clearing in the jungle, where the park staff had created a salt lick to attract wildlife.

That morning at park headquarters we bought fried chicken and cheese sandwiches for the overnight outing. As the young lady of the kitchen staff handed us the bags she advised us to hang them from the strings on the Bumbun’s rafters.
"Huh?" I responded.
"Sometimes a rat will eat your lunch", she explained.
"Rat like fried chicken very much. Hang bag on string, they can’t get it. No problem", she giggled, "okay?".

When we climbed into the bumbun that afternoon we didn’t need a shower. A torrential downpour had taken care of that, so we changed into dry clothes, and prepared for a night of wildlife observation. The park had provided engaging reading material—a log for tourists to record their natural history observations.

Most of the entries were tales of red-eyed wayfarers defending their food bags against a determined army of rats. The rodents came in various sizes, but we learned they all had uncanny abilities to invade the bags of food. There was enough material there for a Ph. D. thesis and a Stephen King novel. I knew that peninsular Malaysia boasted of having at least 20 species of rats, and the log’s colorful descriptions assured us we would see at least a few of them up close and personal.

We ate our modest meal, carefully wrapped the remains for tomorrow’s breakfast, and hung our bags from the rafters. Then it was dark. I tape recorded night sounds, and periodically we saw movement at the salt lick, but the beam of our flashlights proved we were imagining things. When my wife and I climbed into our bunks, we promised to wake each other up should the rats make an appearance.

At 2:00 AM, asleep and enfolded in the moist warmth of the tropical night, I felt something on my foot. With one tremendous power-kick I tried to launch the little bugger into outer space.
"Do you know what you just did?" came my wife’s voice in the darkness.
"I got him, didn’t I?"
"No, you almost kicked me in the face. The rats are here, but I couldn’t wake you up."

And there they were in the beam of the flashlight—not the scrofulous imposters described in the log, but nimble fellows, gliding along the rafters with their russet coats, white bellies, and blueberry eyes. There were two species. One had a tail as long as the head and body. The other had a noticeably longer tail. But they were no ordinary rats. These rafter-runners were pumped up like ninjas. The smell of the cheese sandwiches and fried chicken was driving them crazy. Their speedy peregrinations seemed to be a race to see who would be first to triangulate the food by scent.

What we failed to notice was that one of them had already gotten into the food bag, which was vibrating with its frenzied feeding. I climbed down from the bunk and gave the bag a flat-handed smack. Waaaaah! Such reflexes and coordination! The nibbler literally shot up the string like a yo-yo. That's not something many rats can do. These guys were built for climbing.

The ninja rats were rash and reckless, and though we defended our lunch bag, it was impossible to fend off "Yo-yo" and his kin. It was their turf, and we were outnumbered. By 5:00 AM we were tired of the game, and the rats were full of chicken, cheese, and bread. It was time for bed, they had earned their keep, and I knew something I didn't know before--some rats are damn good climbers.

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