Scientists have discovered five new species of soft-furred hedgehogs from South East Asia.
The revelation required many scientific missions to tropical forest animals to study it.
The researchers also examined specimens of mammals that have been in museum collections for decades.
This detailed, biological spot-the-difference study reveals that two of the animals in the museums are new species to science.
Three others – categorized as subtypes of a species – have been confirmed to be sufficiently different from each other to be formally recognized as individual species.
One of the lead researchers, Dr Melissa Hawkins, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (SMNH), told BBC News that the discovery shows the “amazing” diversity of life on our planet that is yet to be revealed.
“We think we know about the natural world,” said Dr Hawkins, “but even groups like mammals – especially small things that live in hard-to-reach habitats – we really don’t know.
“Finding animals like this can bring attention [rainforest] ecosystems that are highly endangered,” he said.
What are soft-furred hedgehogs?
The animals belong to a group of hedgehogs called Hylomys, all of which live in South East Asia. There were only two known species before, and this discovery brings the number to seven.
They are small, long-nosed mammals and, while they are members of the same family as the more familiar hedgehog, hairy rather than spiny.
Dr Arlo Hinckley, also from SMNH, said a discovery like this was “particularly important in South East Asia, which has the highest rate of deforestation in the world”.
How do you discover a new species?
This is challenging when you study what Dr Hawkins describes as “little brown things” that live in the rainforest.
To the unexpert eye, the small mammals look alike, but the team found significant differences in their genetic codes, and differences in their physical shape – especially their heads and teeth. .
“Their skulls are very cool – they’re small, but they have very sharp teeth,” Dr Hawkins said.
“When they are bigger animals they are very scary.”
Scientists have named a particularly tall species – which they discovered in one of the museum’s collections – Hylomys macarong, a name derived from the Vietnamese word for “vampire”.
As well as studying animals in the wild, the researchers examined specimens from a total of 14 different natural history collections across Asia, Europe and the US.
The two newly discovered species – Hylomys vorax and Hylomys macarong – were discovered in the collections of the Smithsonian and Drexel University in Philadelphia, where they remained in drawers for several decades.
“We say we can do time travel as museum curators,” Dr Hawkins said.
“We can pop down the hall, look at the collection and go anywhere in the world.”
Researchers have gathered enough genetic material from three other species, previously categorized as subspecies, to reveal that they are biologically distinct.
Each different species of Hylomys appears to live in a slightly different habitat – some in lowland forests and others at higher altitudes.
Finding animals that are the result of millions of years of evolution and are unique to a place in a tropical forest, said Dr Hinckley, “is like including a Picasso in an art gallery or discovering an archeological place in a city. “.
“These places are given added value, and hopefully funding to protect an important heritage.”
The discovery was published in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
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