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STATUS
New Zealand: Rare
Importation: <1280

Kiore (Polynesian Rat)

A Rare Species of Rat

One
Kiore – photo by Michael Trotter

It is unlikely that there would ever be widespread support for a rat being accepted as a rare breed of livestock, but a good argument can probably be made for the Kiore or Polynesian Rat (also called the Pacific Rat).

The Kiore (Rattus exulans), and the dog Kuri, were brought to New Zealand by the Polynesians about a thousand years ago. (Conventional wisdom has it at more like 700 or 800 years ago, but archaeological sites of this age indicate a considerable human population with a detailed knowledge of the economic geology of the country, so they must have been here for quite some time before that.)

In pre-European times these little rats – sized somewhere between a mouse and a common rat – weren’t vermin – they were a very important source of food and skins. Important enough to be brought out by the first colonizers from the central Pacific, and certainly fitting the Oxford Dictionary’s “regarded as an asset” definition of livestock. The two other species of Polynesian livestock, pigs and chooks, appear not to have survived the epic sea journey, but dogs and rats did.

When Europeans arrived, the Kuri was soon exterminated, but the Kiore still survives in southern New Zealand and on a number of islands. Not surprisingly, the Department of Conservation, which has an abhorrence of most introduced species, is determined to exterminate them from land under its control, though interestingly it does take Maori “cultural and spiritual values” into account.

The Kiore has lived in New Zealand for nearly a thousand years – but it now faces deliberate extinction.

References

Michael Trotter and Beverley McCulloch, 1989. Unearthing New Zealand. Government Printing Office, Wellington. [Second revised edition published as Digging up the Past by Penguin Books in 1997.] “Kuri and Kiore” on pages 54-55.

E. Matisoo-Smith and J. H. Robins, 2004. Origins and dispersals of Pacific peoples: Evidence from mtDNA phylogenies of the Pacific rat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 15 June 2004, Vol. 101(24): 9167-9172.

Department of Conservation, 2006. Kiore/Pacific rat/Polynesian rat. Department of Conservation leaflet, Christchurch.

Janet M. Wilmshurst, Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy, 2008. Dating the late prehistoric dispersal of Polynesians to New Zealand using the commensal Pacific rat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 3 June 2008, Vol. 105(22): 7676-7680.

E. Matisoo-Smith and J. H. Robins, 2009. Mitochondrial DNA evidence for the spread of Pacific rats through Oceania. Biological Invasions. Volume 11(7): 1521-1527.

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