Anguilla Local News

Amblyrhiza Inundata: Giant Fossil Rat

[Pitch Apple Hole] Who
  From the Anguilla Local News - Site Map.

Anguilla's oldest resident has been highlighted on US Cable TV: Amblyrhiza Inundata, a giant rodent that lived on Anguilla 125,000 years ago. The Paleo World program runs on The Learning Channel (TLC) and you may find it in re-run. The program, which was shot in Anguilla by a BBC film crew, investigated the fossil remains of a giant rodent that may have been unique to Anguilla.

How could a large animal flourish on a 35-square mile island? It couldn't. In the last ice age, the sea level was much lower. This made Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barts, and Saba into a single large island, capable of supporting the giant Amblyrhiza inundata. Then as the ice age ended, the sea level rose and the rodents were stranded on Anguilla, where they eventually became extinct.
[A Hole in the ground]

The first bones of Amblyrhiza inundata were actually noticed a hundred years ago, but there has been some scepticism in the scientific community about the validity of the identification. So, paleontologists came to Anguilla with a TV crew to sift through dirt in Pitch Apple cave, looking for more remains of this species. The TV program showed the scientists descending 70 feet straight down from the cave opening (see picture), and after 12 hours of work, climbing 70 feet back up on a rope ladder! But they were successful - they found enough fossil teeth and bones to be confident that Amblyrhiza inundata was a giant rat, with a wide range in sizes, from that of a dog up to that of a bear.

According to our usually reliable spy, most of the show was accurate, except that Pitch Apple Hole is quite close to the back road, so you would never need to hack your way through the jungle with a machete to get to it.

I have done some more research in the archives of the Anguilla National Trust and can report the following interesting facts.

In 1868, Henry Waters & Brothers, manufacturers of phosphatic fertilizers in the city of Philadelphia, received a shipment of cave earth from Anguilla... [Probably from Cavanaugh Cave.]

Henry Waters was sufficiently astute to notice the presence of fossil bones in his shipment and promptly brought them to the attention of Edward Drinker Cope, one of the countries preeminent paleontologists..Edward Cope could not have been more astounded.. the remains were quite unmistakably those of a rodent, but a rodent of phenomenal size...

Cope named his animal Amblyrhiza inundata, the generic name Amblyrhiza roughly translating to "strange root" and reflecting Cope's difficultly in conceiving of the origin of such an aberrant beast. The specific name inundata alludes to Cope's contention that the presence of so large an animal on so small and remote an island evidenced the existence of a foundered (or iundated) land-bridge between the Antilles and South America.

...before we could locate the rodent fossils, we would have to locate caves suitable for trapping such beasts and preserving their bones...the most productive approach to finding caves in the tropical bush is often to seek the advice of local farmers, and this proved almost immediately successful. In the dry tropical forest of Anguilla, certain moisture-loving trees tend to grow where they can extend their roots into the damp interiors of deep caves. The most distinctive of these trees are known locally as pitch-apple trees, and to the experienced eye they can be recognized at a distance by their large, dark green leaves...

Pitch Apple Hole, as we came to call the site, proved to be an impressive gaping mouth in the forest floor. Tree roots extended down from the surface to the boulder floor some sixty feet below. Rappelling into the chasm, we quickly established that the cave was not very extensive. A few moments of digging yielded our quarry -- first an incisor tooth and then a large leg bone that clearly did not belong to any animal now living on the island. We had found Amblyrhiza.

References: Terra Vol 30 No 2, 1991, "The Search for Anguilla's Giant Rodent" by Dr. Donald A. McFarlane.

Directions: The cave is located on the backroad from North Side Village to Shoal Bay. To find it, take the road to Shoal Bay, turn left just before Uncle Ernies on the road to The Fountain Beach Hotel. Follow the road for a couple miles, past both turn offs to the gravel pit, until you reach a spot where the road curves gently to left. You will see a fenced goat pen on the left with an abandoned refrigerator in it and a cleared area along the road without a fence. About fifty yards to the left of the pen you will find a path into the trees that leads to Pitch Apple Hole in less than 50 feet (you can almost see it from the road). Be very careful, as there is no guard rail and a fall would be deadly. There is a large pitch apple tree growing out of the cave, with roots extending down 60 feet to the bottom. This tree has very distinctive wide green leaves that last a long time. In the old days, Anguillans used them for playing cards!

 Revised: April 29, 1998

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