A study has shed new light on a mysterious and rare rodent, confirming a long-held suspicion that the tiny creature's fur is laced with poison.
The study of the African crested rat published Tuesday in the "Journal of Mammology" found the rodent chews a plant-based poison and licks it into specialized hairs in its fur, according to a release from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
"Its fur is packed with a poison so lethal it can fell an elephant, and just a few milligrams can kill a human," the release says.
There are no known instances of the rats injuring people but there have been reports of dogs becoming ill or dying after attempting to attack the rats, according to a statement from Sara Weinstein, the study's lead author, emailed to USA TODAY.
Petting one would be ill-advised for a number of reasons, Weinstein said.
"Touching their fur would not kill you, although if it's fur on a live crested rat you'd probably get bitten by a very annoyed 2 lb. rodent," the statement said.
If someone got that far, they would want to immediately wash their hands to prevent the poison from coming in contact with their mouth, eyes or any open cuts — that's where the poison could prove deadly, Weinstein said.
The African crested rat is found in eastern Africa and rarely seen by humans, the study says. For those who do encounter it, they'll see a "rabbit-sized rodent" that "resembles a gray puffball crossed with a skunk."
While experts previously believed the creatures were solitary, recorded observations and trapping suggest that the rodents are monogamous and may form family groups.
Observing the elusive rat was a challenge, researchers reported: “Out of 30 traps, we finally got two animals. That was a win. This rat is really rare," the release quotes study co-author Katrina Nyawira.
The source of the poison, as observed by researchers: the “African poison arrow tree,” — a plant often used to create arrow poisons.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: African crested rat is a 'puffball' with poisonous fur, study says