Whitehead's spiny rat (Maxomys whiteheadi)

Whitehead's spiny rat on forest floor
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Whitehead's spiny rat fact file

Whitehead's spiny rat description

GenusMaxomys (1)

Named after the British explorer John Whitehead who first documented its existence (3), Whitehead’s spiny rat (Maxomys whiteheadi) has reddish-brown upperparts with grey underfur (2) (4). As its name suggests, Whitehead’s spiny rat also has numerous inflexible grey spines with black tips on its upperparts, which are thought to be for protection. The underparts are orange-buff with grey underfur and numerous soft, pale spines (4) (5)

The tail, which is shorter than the head and body length combined, is bicoloured, with a brown-black upperside separated from a white underside by a sharp line (6).

Male Whitehead’s spiny rats generally have longer hindfeet than females. This species of rat has the largest teeth of all Maxomys species. Six subspecies of Whitehead’s spiny rat are currently recognised, all of which differ slightly in appearance (7).

Also known as
Whitehead’s sundaic maxomys.
Head-body length: 10 - 15 cm (2)
Tail length: 9 - 13 cm (2)
50 g (2)

Whitehead's spiny rat biology

Whitehead’s spiny rat is believed to be monogamous, with each breeding pair occupying a home range that is defended against other spiny rats (8). It is believed to breed throughout the year, at least in peninsular Malaysia, and has one to six young per litter (5).

A nocturnal animal (8), Whitehead’s spiny rat spends its nights foraging on the forest floor for a wide range of plant material, such as fallen fruits and seeds, with a preference for oil palm fruit (10). However, as an omnivorous species, its diet also includes arthropods (8). Like other spiny rats, it is a hoarder, storing seeds in deep underground burrows that are dug by other forest animals (11).

Whitehead’s spiny rat is eaten by a number of predators, including the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) (9).


Whitehead's spiny rat range

Whitehead’s spiny rat is native to Southeast Asia, ranging from peninsular Thailand south to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. This includes the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, as well as various neighbouring islands (1).


Whitehead's spiny rat habitat

Belonging to a genus of rodents which are the most common in Southeast Asian tropical forests, Whitehead’s spiny rat is found in old undisturbed areas of forest (8), as well as areas that have re-grown following a disturbance (secondary forest) (9). This ground-dwelling spiny rat also inhabits rice paddies and gardens adjacent to forests (8). Although generally a lowland species, Whitehead’s spiny rat has been recorded at elevations as high as 2,100 metres on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu (1).


Whitehead's spiny rat status

Whitehead’s spiny rat is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Whitehead's spiny rat threats

The main threat to Whitehead’s spiny rat is the widespread loss of habitat on Sumatra and Borneo (1), as a result of commercial logging and agriculture, particularly oil palm plantations (12). Lowland forests have been particularly hard hit, with some predicting that if this rate of deforestation continues, lowland forest in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) may soon disappear completely (12).


Whitehead's spiny rat conservation

Although there are no known specific conservation measures currently in place for Whitehead’s spiny rat, it occurs in the protected area of the Mount Kinabalu National Park, Borneo. A number of conservation organisations, such as WWF, are working to conserve forest in the region this endangered species inhabits (1) (13).


Find out more

Learn more about conservation in Borneo:



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


A very diverse phylum (a major grouping of animals) that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Home range
The area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Active at night.
Feeding on both plants and animals.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.


  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
  2. Payne, J., Francis, C.M. and Phillipps, K. (1985) A Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo. The Sabah Society and World Wildlife Fund Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur.
  3. Beolens, B., Watkins, M. and Grayson, M. (2009) Eponym Dictionary of Mammals. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  4. Yasuma, S., Andau, M., Apin, L., Tuh Yit Yu, F. and Kimsui, L. (2003) Identification Keys to the Mammals of Borneo. Park Management Component, BBEC Programme, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
  5. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walkers Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  6. Harrison, J.L. (1966) An Introduction to the Mammals of Singapore and Malaya. Malaya Nature Society, Singapore.
  7. Sinaga, M.H., Gorog, A.J. and Chinen, A.A. (2007) Morphological variation of Whitehead’s rat Maxomys whiteheadi (Rodentia: Muridae) from Kalimantan and Sumatra. Zoo Indonesia, 62(2): 75-86.
  8. Nakagawa, M., Miguchi, H., Sato, K. and Nakashizuka, T. (2007) A preliminary study of two sympatric Maxomys rats in Sarawak, Malaysia: spacing patterns and population dynamics. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology; 55(2): 381-387.
  9. Rajaratnam, R., Sunquist, M., Rajaratnam, L. and Ambu, L. (2007) Diet and habitat selection of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis borneoensis) in an agricultural landscape in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, Journal of Tropical Ecology, 23: 209-217. 
  10. Shingo, M., Yasuda, M. and Ratnam, L. (1997) Who steals the fruits? Monitoring furgivory of mammals in a tropical rainforest. Malayan Nature Journal, 50: 183-193.
  11. Curran, L.M. and Webb, C.O. (2000) Experimental tests of the spatiotemporal scale of seed predation in mast-fruiting Dipterocarpaceae. Ecological Monographs, 70(1): 129-148.
  12. Mittermeier, R.A., Robles-Gil, P., Hoffmann, M., Pilgrim, J.D., Brooks, T.M., Mittermeier, C.G., Lamoreux, J.L. and Fonseca, G. (2004) Hotspots Revisited: Earth's Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Ecoregions. Cemex, Mexico City.
  13. WWF – Borneo (November, 2010)

Image credit

Whitehead's spiny rat on forest floor  
Whitehead's spiny rat on forest floor

© Konstans Wells

Konstans Wells
Institute of Experimental Ecology
University of Ulm


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