Researchers have recently discovered the rich evolutionary history of an extinct species of rat, many of which were the size of cats. CATS!

Known as rice rats, this extinct species dwelled in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean. The rodent may have been able to swim, diving into the ocean to escape predators, though it never migrated from the island. The rats were hunted for food, but because they released an offensive odor when cooked, diners had to first singe off their hair and let the animal air out overnight, and then cook the rodent in two batches of water.

The rice rat arrived in the Caribbean an estimated six million years ago, and became extinct over 100 years ago. They, along with many other species, were threatened by the arrival of European settlers in the late 1500s who brought the mongoose and their own species of rats, as well as cut down trees devastatingly. In less than 200 years, the Caribbean faced what researches regard as the largest mammal extinction event in the past few thousand years.

Scientists haven’t had much hard evidence of the rodent to base their research on; the tropical heat degraded much of the DNA material recovered from archaeological specimens, and only a few examples of these rats are held in museums.

Despite this, researchers were able to figure out that the rice rat floated on vegetation rafts from South America to the Lesser Antilles. As the rats began to populate the three islands of St Eustatius, St Kitts and Nevis, they evolved to become highly differentiated between islands.

This genetic diversity came as a huge surprise to the researchers, who anticipated the rats to be genetically identical due to the fact that the three islands become a single landmass during glacial periods. They estimate 15 to 20 different rice rat species existed across the Lesser Antilles at one time - a true testament to how devastating the arrival of the European settlers were to the diversity of life in the Caribbean.