Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Thursday 20 September 2012


The nominate black-furred subspecies, E. g. gymnura, of the moonrat (Constance Warner)

As a child, animals with unusual names always held an intense fascination for me. So it was inevitable that I would want to learn more about the moonrat!

Sadly, I soon discovered that in spite of its exotic appellation, this wonderful creature, known scientifically as Echinosorex gymnura, does not actually come from the moon, but it is such an amazing-looking animal that anybody could be forgiven for wondering whether it may do! In fact, the marvellous moonrat is from southeastern Asia (specifically the Thai-Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo).

The marvellous moonrat (Dr David Kirshner)

It was first brought to scientific attention in 1821, by Sir Stamford Raffles, who discovered it in Sumatra and mistakenly deemed it to be a new species of civet, duly dubbing it Viverra gymnura. Certain other early investigators of this mysterious mammal were equally confused by it, categorising it as a marsupial!

In reality, however, the moonrat is the largest of several species of insectivore that are known as gymnures ('naked tails'). This is because their very long slender tails are almost hairless and covered in scales, rather like snakes! Equally ophidian is the loud, threatening hiss that the moonrat gives voice to if confronted by predators or by other moonrats invading its territory.

Moonrat postage stamp, Malaysia 2008

With a head and body length of 13-16 in, a tail of 8-12 in, and weighing up to 2.75 lb, the moonrat looks very like a gigantic rat - a rat wearing a black mask, and as big as a domestic cat! (In Borneo, moonrats lack the mask because here, uniquely, they are predominantly white all over in colour.) It even occupies a similar ecological niche to true rats. Taxonomically, however, this deceptive animal is something very different, because its closest relatives are not the rodents but the hedgehogs.

For although, outwardly, it doesn't look anything like one, when its anatomy is examined the moonrat is swiftly revealed to be a kind of extra-large, long-tailed hedgehog - but one that is covered in long coarse hair instead of spines.

The moonrat's very distinctive, predominantly white Bornean subspecies, E. g. alba (FactZoo.com)

The moonrat's external appearance has some other surprises too. Its very lengthy, mobile snout is plentifully supplied with exceptionally long, bristly whiskers - as are its eyebrows. These whiskers are extremely sensitive to touch, and probably help the moonrat to gauge in the dark whether it is thin enough to pick its way through tight crevices while active at night. Also assisting it do this is the remarkable shape of its body, which although looking very burly from the side, is actually surprisingly narrow, allowing it to squeeze through gaps that seem scarcely wide enough to let it pass. So too do its very short legs.

The moonrat inhabits dense forests and swamps, usually near water. A good swimmer, it is fond of eating fishes, frogs, crabs, clams, and other aquatic creatures, as well as worms and insects. Despite its size and eyecatching appearance, however, as well as the facts that it was first documented scientifically as long ago as 1821 (by Sir Stamford Raffles no less, who named it a year later) and has a lifespan of up to 5 years in its native habitat, the moonrat remains one of the world's most mysterious mammals. This is because it is incredibly shy and hence is rarely seen in the wild.

19th-Century engraving of a moonrat

One peculiar thing that we do know about its wild habits, however, is that when the female moonrat makes a nest in which she subsequently gives birth to two babies, the fluid that she secretes from a pair of glands under her tail to mark the nest's entrance possesses a strong ammonia content and has a potent smell that closely resembles rotten onions or garlic! (The male also secretes this same fluid when marking his territory.) So even if our eyes are unsuccessful in catching sight of moonrats, our nose should have far less trouble locating their nests!

The moonrat's memorable name has assisted it in becoming an unlikely villain in a delightful children's book written by Helen Ward. Entitled The Moonrat and the White Turtle and originally published in 1990, it also contains Ward's beautiful full-colour illustrations. Moonrat is the greatly-feared leader of a rascally band of pirate rats, and is driven by one unquenchable ambition – to steal the moon out of the sky and add it to his vast glittering trove of ill-gotten treasure! But does he succeed with his nefarious plot, and who or what is the White Turtle? I'll leave you to discover this excellent book and find out for yourself!

There is also a Los Angeles-based rock group called The Moonrats, but I'm unsure whether their name was gymnure-inspired, or just inspired!

Finally: all that remains to be answered is where the moonrat itself obtained its noteworthy name. However, this appears to be one mystery that is destined to remain unanswered, because in spite of considerable research, I have so far been unable to trace any explanation of its origin. So if anyone can enlighten me concerning this, I'd love to hear from you!

UPDATE: 23 March 2014

While discussing the moonrat with Australian naturalist Dr David Kirschner (who also kindly permitted me to include his moonrat illustration here), David offered up a very thought-provoking potential explanation for the origin of this species' very unusual common name, moonrat, which again he has permitted me to include here:

"As for the common name, if I had to guess it would have probably originated with the Bornean subspecies, E. gymnura alba, as I would imagine an all white, nocturnal mammal would be quite visible on a bright moonlit night."

Indeed, taking this line of thought even further, such an animal would be so eyecatching and unearthly in appearance if viewed upon a bright moonlit night that the more fanciful of observers may even have imagined it (albeit only in jest) to have originated directly from the moon itself - hence 'moonrat'!

Sheet of moonrat-depicting postage stamps issued by Malaysia in 2008


  1. Didn't you try the Oxford English Dictionary? They have this quote:

    1897 Science Apr. 640/2 The Malays, because of its nocturnal habits and appearance, call it tikus bulan, which means moon-rat.

    1. Yes, I am aware of several local names for it that all translate as 'moon rat', but this does not explain why a precise lunar epithet (as opposed to one merely denoting night-time activity) is used for this species. After all, there are countless species of nocturnal animal, but their local names do not normally translate as 'moon...' (instead they are often merely referred to as night..., if indeed their nocturnal activity features at all in their name), so why, specifically, is this species so named? Unless, as I noted in my article, its very exotic, almost unearthly appearance has inspired such an imaginative name for it?

    2. The earliest reference I can find to a local name is: Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles "Descriptive Catalogue of a Zoological Collection etc." Transactions of the Linnean Society of London (1821/1822) XIII: 239 - 274 and has the name as Tikus Ambang búlan. Ambang meaning verge or threshold in Malay, so not simply a moonrat.

      As the Malays (according to Raffles, in the woods in the interior of Malacca) call it moonrat it seems that the two-tone, non-Bornean ones are called by this name. I would speculate that, as they like wet areas and frequently swim, the sight of the wet, mottled head amongst ripples would be reminiscent of the moon's reflection.

      Do you have any specifically Bornean local names amongst those other local names you have?