In 2011 while Alessio Mortelliti was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sapienza University of Rome, he conducted an inventory of the small mammals found in the Mekongga Mountains of Sulawesi, Indonesia.
During his expedition, Mortelliti discovered a new rodent species. Margaretamys christinae, named after Mortelliti’s wife Christina, is a type of rat.
“Some people name flowers after their wife, I named a rat,” jokes Mortelliti, now an assistant professor of wildlife habitat ecology at the University of Maine. He is working with recently graduated Ph.D. student Bayu Broto to identify potential research opportunities in Indonesia.
“My dream is to go back to learn more about my species,” Mortelliti says. “We discovered it, but we know absolutely nothing about it.”
Broto, who earned a master’s degree in wildlife conservation, is originally from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and has worked as a government officer in Sulawesi, Indonesia, the same region where Mortelliti made his discovery.
Sulawesi is one of Indonesia’s large islands, according to Broto, who compares it to the size of New England. It is mountainous and relatively humid with average temperatures around 70–95 degrees F.
“Some people name flowers after their wife, I named a rat.” Alessio Mortelliti
“Sulawesi encompasses high numbers of endemic and threatened mammals,” Broto says. “The island is widely considered a biodiversity hot spot and high-priority area for mammal conservation.”
Broto and Mortelliti have determined that knowledge of Sulawesi mammals is still at a preliminary stage, with the majority of Sulawesi research being led by foreign researchers and focusing on charismatic animals in well-known provinces.
As part of their study, the researchers identified Sulawesi species considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that have received relatively little attention from researchers.
They found two primates — Tarsius pelengensis and Tarsius tumpara — have been the subject of only one paper each, despite being categorized as critically endangered by the IUCN.
The researchers say future studies in Sulawesi should be prioritized for understudied, threatened species; focus on lesser-known areas; and encourage collaborative research among international scientists.
Broto says he hopes to collaborate with Mortelliti to conduct mammal studies in Sulawesi. The pair is pursuing grant funding.
“To be able to conserve Sulawesi mammals, we still need many studies to gather valuable information such as natural history data or understanding the effect of anthropogenic pressure on Sulawesi mammals,” Broto says. “Sulawesi is like a big living laboratory of mammal research.”