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The Atoll of Funafuti, Ellice group : its zoology, botany, ethnology and general structure based on collections made by Charles Hedley of the Australian Museum, Sydney, N.S.W.



Unlike its European relative, the Pacific rat is usually said to feed only on vegetable substances. "Writing of Mangaia, in the Cook Group, Gill9 states that it feeds exclusively upon cocoanuts, bananas, arrowroot, candle nuts, and papao (pawpaw) apples, and that it was usual to defend growing cocoanuts from the depredations of the native rat by making a sort of screen cleverly secured all round the tree, close to the fronds at a great height from the ground. In Mariner's16 book the rats are described as living chiefly upon such vegetable substances as sugar cane, bread fruit, etc., and it is incidentally mentioned that roasted cocoanut was used as a bait.

Peale18 adds the Pandanus to this list, and states that the fruit of this plant forms the principal food of the rat, hazarding the suggestion that if its appetite was at all carnivorous it would be found to feed upon the land crabs and molluscs on the shore, such however not being the case. He describes it (Mus vitiensis) as attacking pockets and packs containing edibles.

The Kiore Maori is described by Dieffenbach 6 and others as being a frugivorous rat.

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Rutland19 writes of the New Zealand bush-rat:—"Considering the vast numbers of these rats that periodically congregate round the homes of settlers in the bush, the mischief done by them is extremely small. This is owing to their food during the time being green vegetables. In kitchen gardens they are certainly annoying, devouring peas, beans, cabbages, and even onions, as they appear above ground, climbing up poles to nip off the shoots of the vines, etc."

Of Sydney Island Arundel2 ascribes a partial animal diet to them, writing:—"Before any settlements are formed they live in the ground and roots of trees, and subsist on young birds, birds' eggs, seeds, etc. As soon, however, as anyone comes to live on an island they gather round the settlement, particularly round the native quarters, natives being, as a rule, rather wasteful in their eating, and scattering round about them rice, bread, pieces of fish, etc."

If the native rat preceded the human inhabitants of the atolls, the pandanus, being indigenous, would probably be its staple food, and as the cocoanut, breadfruit, arrowroot, etc., were intro-duced, the rat would acquire a taste for these articles.

As to its nesting habits the accounts are somewhat varied, Peale describes it as constructing a nest in the tussocks of grass, and making shallow burrows like an Arvicola. He describes Mus vitiensis as being a great pest in most of the houses of the Fiji Islands, making its nest in the thatched roof. Being an excellent climber it sallies forth at night in such numbers as to be exceedingly troublesome. Gill9 relates an instance of a pair having made a nest within a mummy conserved in a cave.

Of Caroline Island Dixon8 writes:—"The brown rat has a foot-hold, but is not numerous. Their nests were made in the cocoanut trees, just at the base of the fronds." Our colleague understood that it nested in similar situations in Funafuti.

In New Zealand, too, Rutland 10 records how nests, evidently of rats, were found in the crowns of tree ferns and also under the roots of trees and among rushes. This writer describes the rats as being awkward on the ground but extremely active when climbing trees, ascending with the nimbleness of flies and running out to the very extremities of the branches. Hence, he adds, "when pursued they invariably make to trees if any are within reach." Peale mentions a similar habit in connection with the rats recorded by him.

In Tonga, Mariner16 describes it as being an inhabitant of the bush, writing:—"Every now and then the natives make a peculiar noise with the lips, like the squeaking of a rat, which frequently brings them out of the bushes."

In Mangaia, as mentioned by Gill,9 and as previously recorded, rats inhabited the mountain fern, whence they were occasionally page 171driven by fire, Arundel2 describes the rats of Sydney Island as naturally living in the ground and roots of trees, but gathering round the dwellings as soon as a settlement is formed.

As elsewhere, the great enemy of the native rat is the common brown rat of Europe, introduced by ships throughout the world. Its depredations are such that Gill states that in many of the islands the indigenous breed has been exterminated by the imported rat. Some idea of the successful war waged by the introduced rat may be gathered from the following graphic account by the same writer9:—" In 1852 a solitary male Norway rat got ashore at Mangaia from the wreck of an American whaler. It made war upon the native rat, so that one of the bed-rooms of the mission-house became uninhabitable. On removing the flooring about thirty dead native rats were found. We caught the offender in a trap."

Writing of Raratonga, another island of the Cook Group, the same author11 incidentally records how the native rat has been subjected to even more deadly onslaught, being almost exter-minated by the domestic cats which, originally introduced by missionaries and afterwards emigrating to the bush, took to hunting birds when rats became scarce.

On p. 59 of the present Memoir we read:—"Cats have long been introduced, they are known to the natives by the name of 'pussy,' and have proved of service in destroying the brown rat, formerly a great pest to the Islands." Dieffenbach,6 writing on New Zealand, states that the cat often runs wild and is another cause of the extermination of indigenous animals.

The natives themselves destroy the rats: first, as vermin; second, shooting them for sport; third, killing them for food.

When unchecked, rats became very numerous on some of the islands. Writing of Sydney Island, Arundel2 mentions how on moonlight nights he has often seen hundreds of rats gathered together round the native quarters feeding upon waste rice, bread, pieces of fish, etc., thrown out. He adds that they frequently caught one hundred a night in tubs made into traps in the store.

In Mangaia they were also numerous, for Gill9 states that, like most of the Pacific Islands, it was literally overrun with rats, and describes how a large bottle-shaped hole was dug in the earth and baited with candle-nuts, adding that when the hole was pretty well filled with rats, two men would go down with knobbed sticks to kill them. A hole which would contain two men would accommodate a goodly number of rats ! If the Mangaian rats were equally vicious with those mentioned by Peale, rat-killing under such conditions would not be unattended by danger, for he states that the animal resists pertinaciously and bites severely.

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The reduction in the number of rats was a matter of such importance with the inhabitants, that we find a number of ingenious traps were in use for the purpose; these will be treated of in the Ethnological Report.

We have mentioned that sport may constitute a second way in which the rat is subject to persecution by the natives, Mariner16 has given an exhaustive account of the sport of "fanna gooma" or rat shooting, as practised on the island of Hoonga in the Tonga Group, from which it appears that it was an amusement in which only chiefs were permitted to participate, and was undertaken with much ceremony. The rats attracted by bait previously distributed, were shot with unfeathered arrows six feet long, projected from bows of similar length. The game was a party and not an individual affair, the party first killing ten rats was accounted the winner. If, Mariner adds, there be plenty of rats, they generally play three or four games. For a full account of the rules of the game the reader is referred to Mariner's book, which contains much of interest about the Tonga Islands. In Honolulu, as mentioned by Brigham,3 the bow was exclusively devoted to "killing rats and mice and such small deer."

The third reason for the native destruction of rats is of greater interest, and may be more fully mentioned.

In many of the islands of the Pacific the native rat formed an article of food with the inhabitants; feeding upon fruit or vegetables it would be less objectionable than the omnivorous European rat, and indeed Buller4 remarks that:—"Unlike the common rat, the rat of New Zealand is perfectly free from odour of any kind, probably due to the nature of its food, this consisting almost entirely of fruits and berries." The introduced rats were nowhere eaten: it may be that they were considered to be unpalatable, but it is equally possible that at the time they obtained a footing on the islands, pigs and other edible animals would also be introduced, and the necessity of eating rats removed. These native rats must have been considered good eating, for Grill,9 writing on the Cook Islands, states:—" The proverb 'sweet as a rat' survives in Mangaia to this day, although the adults of this generation have given up the disgusting practice of rat-eating."

This prolific and entertaining writer10 has given a valuable historical account of the capture and cooking of rats as practiced in Mangaia: it may be epitomised as follows:—

"In those days—ere the cat had been introduced—rats were very plentiful. Rat-hunting was the grave employment of bearded men, the flesh being regarded as most delicious. The rat, though but slightly larger than the English mouse, was the only quadruped on the island.

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"Tamangoru, a solitary cannibal, on one occasion discovered two boys roasting a number of rats over a fire,—a joyful sight for a famishing Mangaian, he ambiguously remarked, 'cooked rats are capital eating.' The word 'rats' thus used might apply to the lads as well as to the little quadrupeds. A cooked boy would be indifferently called a 'fish' or a 'rat.'

"These two brothers subsisted chiefly by rat-catching, in which they were adepts.

"On the previous evening they dug a deep hole in the earth and covered the bottom of it with candlenuts, of which rats are excessively fond. A narrow pathway was made on either side for the rats to get down and eat. The lads lay in wait at a little distance, until they thought that the hole must be pretty full. Each lad carried a lighted torch in one hand, and a stout iron-wood stick in the other. They quickly killed a large number of rats.

"The boys now made a fire to roast the spoil. They then thrust long green reeds (previously prepared) through the rats, eight on each reed, and grilled them over the fire. There were four skewers or reeds of rats, that is, thirty-two in all. When the rats were done, the elder took two reeds of rats (sixteen) to Tamangoru; the famished man greedily devoured them and called for the remaining two reeds."

The same author9 informs us that in the neighbouring island of Raratonga, rats were not eaten, the inhabitants reviling the natives of Mangaia as the rat-eating Mangaians.

It would, however, appear that rats were not eaten when fish was procurable, for Gill relates how, when the sea was too rough for fishing, the boys set fire to the mountain fern, so that the rats rushing out of the fern, half blinded with fire and smoke, were easily killed with long sticks.

In Tonga (Hoonga Island) the rats formed an article of food with the lower orders of people, but in the account above referred to, Mariner16 says they are not allowed to make a sport of shooting them, this privilege being reserved for "chiefs, mata-booles, and mooas."

Of the rat in New Zealand, Dieffenbach6 tells us that the frugivorous Kiore Maori was formerly largely eaten by the natives, but that it had in 1843 become so scarce, owing to the extermination carried on against it by the European rat, that he could never obtain one.

Buller4 describes how during certain seasons the New Zealand rat was captured by thousands and eaten, or potted down in their own fat for future use.

At Penhryn Island, Smith21 informs us that the only animal on the atoll was a small rat, which was not eaten.

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In Funafuti the native rat is described to me as having been driven from the village, and indeed almost exterminated upon the main islet by the foreign rat. Upon the other islets it exists and in some cases swarms, but as these islets are not permanently tenanted the rat can scarcely be regarded as a pest.

It constructs its nest in the cocoanut trees, just at the base of the fronds, and Mr. Hedley tells me that he frequently noticed the rats peeping out of the matting that sheathes the butts of the cocoanut fronds, and scampering about the heads of palms, fifteen or twenty feet high. In pre-civilised times these rats were a great plague to the natives, who did not use them as food. By law each individual was at times obliged to catch and destroy a set number of these vermin, for which purpose an ingenious trap was used.