Christmas Island

About 320 km south of Java in the Indian Ocean lies Christmas Island. Although named in 1643, the island remained unexplored until its first settlement in 1888, a development which had dire consequences for some of its native species.

Christmas Island is home to many endemic animals, including Maclear’s Rat (Rattus macleari), which became extinct in the first decade of the 20th century.

A monograph about the island, published in 1900, reports Maclear’s Rat to be ‘by far the commonest of the mammals found in the island’ and to ‘occur in swarms’. Just a few years later it was completely wiped out, along with another endemic rat called the Bulldog Rat (Rattus nativitatis).

Commercially attractive phosphate deposits have brought many expeditions to the island, and with their cargo came black rats. These ship rats carried diseases to which the native rats had no immunity, and so were a likely cause of the extinctions.

The disappearance of the native rats also had a knock-on effect: the parasitic Christmas Island Flea (Xenopsylla nesiotes) depended on the rats as hosts, and so the fleas became extinct with the rats' demise.

The Museum holds a range of material from Christmas Island, including six skins and three skulls of Rattus macleari which were donated in 1938 by H. E. Durham, who collected them in 1901-02.