Cursed with a phenomenally un-cute name, the Laotian rock rat is one of the most fascinating animals on the planet--and not actually an ugly animal! It was discovered at a meat market in Laos as, well, meat, back in 1996. Baffled by the peculiarity of the animal's skull shape, researchers dug deeper into the history of this creature and finally described it properly for the first time in 2005.
The original researchers described it as the sole known member of a totally new family, which is highly unusual; new animals are found every year, but they're usually related to some other animal we know (like the olinguito
). But those researchers only compared the Laotian rock rat to other extant mammals, not to the fossil record.
The year after, a new
crop of researchers published a paper suggesting that the Laotian rock rat is actually a member of a family, Diatomyidae
, that's known in the fossil record. The rock rat isn't new--it's actually incredibly old, a so-called "Lazarus taxon." Lazarus taxon animals are known from the fossil record, but thought to be extinct in modern times, until they're discovered walking/swimming/flying around. The coelacanth is the classic example. The Laotian rock rat first appeared in the fossil record about 32.5 million years ago, but about 11 million years ago, it disappeared from the fossil record. Nobody knows why, considering the rock rat is still here, and has been living and dying through that entire time.
It looks sort of like a cross between a squirrel and a rat, and lives, as its name suggests, on rocky limestone areas of Laos.