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Rat bones found in Israel suggest ancient Africa-Europe ecological travel route

Remains point to possible corridor with similar humid climate to East Africa, allowing species, potentially including humans, to trek across deserts

  • Skull of a maned rat found in the Judean Desert (via Haifa University)
    Skull of a maned rat found in the Judean Desert (via Haifa University)
  • Researcher working in the cave where the remains of a maned rat were found (Haifa University)
    Researcher working in the cave where the remains of a maned rat were found (Haifa University)
  • A maned rat (Haifa University)
    A maned rat (Haifa University)
  • Researcher working in the cave where the remains of a maned rat were found (Haifa University)
    Researcher working in the cave where the remains of a maned rat were found (Haifa University)

The remains of a rat from some tens of thousands of years ago could shed light on the potential existence of a travel corridor of temperate climate from Africa to Europe, Israeli researchers said Tuesday.

The remains of a maned, or crested, rat were found in Israel during excavations in 2016 by archeologists searching for ancient scrolls. Hundreds of bones were found in a cave in the southern Judean Desert.

The researchers said that the presence of the rat’s remains suggested that there may have been a corridor of land to Israel from East Africa with a similarly damp climate to enable to species to survive the migration.

According to a statement by the University of Haifa, the researchers who tested the remains successfully extracted the earliest genetic sample found in the region so far.

“We were able to extract DNA from the ancient bones,” the researchers said in a statement from the University of Haifa. “It is the earliest DNA extracted from bones in our region to date. Genetic and morphological analysis revealed that it is a subspecies of the maned rat that currently lives in East Africa.”

The rodent is large, weighing around one kilogram (2.2 pounds), and its modern equivalent is a rare find even today in its natural African habitat, an area with a lot of rainfall and green vegetation.

A maned rat (Haifa University)

The researchers said that the ancient animal was very similar to the modern-day maned rat.

“If the species now lives in humid areas, chances are that even around 100,000 years ago, the subspecies we found would have needed the same conditions,” the researchers said.

“Genetic proximity allows us to assume that the primitive subspecies also lived in a climatic environment similar to the one in which it lives today,” the researchers said. “Because the same African species came to the Judean Desert through an ancient climatic corridor, it is also likely that humans who migrated from Africa to the Levant at that time were also aided by the same ecological corridor.”

Only one of the bones found at the site could be dated using carbon-dating and was revealed to be from 42,000 years ago.

The remainder of the bones could not be analyzed using this method, meaning that they were over 50,000 years old.

Researcher working in the cave where the remains of a maned rat were found (Haifa University)

However, researchers at the Geological Survey of Israel were able to date gypsum fragments discovered with the bones, which put the earliest timeframe for the rodent at 120,000 years ago.

The researchers concluded that the rodent lived in the Judean Desert around 42,000 to at least 103,000 years ago.

According to the researchers, like its relatives in Africa, this subspecies of rat was also characterized by special protections against predators, including having an extra-thick skull and poisoning its own fur by chewing toxic bark and then spreading it over the absorbent hairs covering its body.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) and was carried out by a team led by Dr. Ignacio Lazagabaster of the University of Haifa and the Museum of Nature in Berlin, alongside a team from Tel Aviv University, Montpellier University, the Hebrew University, the Geological Survey of Israel and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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