A new study led by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has identified five new species of soft-furred hedgehogs from Southeast Asia.
The study, published in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Societyused DNA analysis and physical characteristics to describe two new species of soft-furred hedgehogs and elevate three subspecies to species level.
The two new species, named Hylomys vorax and H. macaron, are endemic to the endangered Leuser ecosystem, a tropical rainforest in North Sumatra and Southern Vietnam, respectively. The museum specimens essential to the description of these two new species came from the natural history collections of the Smithsonian and the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia where they remained in drawers for 84 and 62 years, respectively. , respectively, before identification.
The study—an international collaboration between researchers at the University of Seville and the Doñana Biological Station in Spain, George Mason University and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in the US, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore, the Natural History The Museum of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Malaya in Malaysia—underscored that even in well-studied animal groups such as mammals there are still discoveries waiting to be made, showing what is possible if modern techniques such as DNA analysis are applied to museum collections.
Fluffy hedgehogs or gymnures are small mammals that belong to the hedgehog family, but as their common name suggests they are hairy rather than spiky. Like spiny hedgehogs, they are not rodents and they have a pointed snout. Without the spines of their more prominent cousins, the fluffy hedgehogs look superficially like a mix of a mouse and a shrew with a short tail, says Arlo Hinckley, the lead author of the study and a Margarita Salas Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History and University of Seville. The five new species belong to a group of soft-furred hedgehogs called lesser gymnures (Hylomys) that lives in Southeast Asia and was previously only recognized as represented by two known species.
“We were only able to identify these new hedgehogs thanks to the museum staff who have curated these specimens for countless decades and their original field collectors,” Hinckley said. “By applying modern genomic techniques as we did many years after first collecting these hedgehogs, the next generation will be able to identify even more new species.”
Hinckley said these small mammals are active during the day and night and are omnivorous, likely eating a variety of insects and other invertebrates as well as some fruits as opportunities arise.
“Based on the lifestyles of their close relatives and field observations, these hedgehogs tend to nest in burrows and hide while foraging among tree roots, fallen logs, rocks, weeds areas, bushes and leaf litter,” Hinckley said. “However, because they are so poorly studied, we are limited to speculating about the details of their natural history.”
Hinckley first became interested in the gymnure group Hylomys in 2016 during his doctoral studies, especially after he sampled it in Borneo with co-author Miguel Camacho Sánchez. Preliminary genetic data and studies of some known populations of Hylomys in Southeast Asia suggested to them that there are more species in the group than currently recognized. This sent Hinckley combing through natural history collections looking for specimens assigned to the group, most of which were only preserved skins and skeletons.
When he began his research at the Smithsonian in 2022, Hinckley took advantage of the National Museum of Natural History’s collections to fill geographic gaps in the specimens he had already studied with the help of Melissa Hawkins, the curator of the mammal in the museum.
Ultimately, Hinckley, Hawkins and their colleagues collected 232 physical specimens and 85 tissue samples for genetic analysis from across the Hylomys group from a combination of Hinckley and Hawkins’ own field collections, as well as modern and historical museum specimens from no fewer than 14 natural history collections across Asia, Europe and the US
Then Hinckley and his co-authors set about the long process of conducting genetic analysis of 85 tissue samples in the old DNA laboratory of the Doñana Biological Station and the Museum’s Laboratories of Analytical Biology. They also made close physical observations and collected measurements to assess differences in the size and shape of the skulls, teeth and feathers of the 232 specimens.
The genetic results identified seven distinct genetic lines of Hylomyssuggesting that the number of identified species in the group was about to increase by five, later confirmed by the team’s physical observations of the specimens.
“It might be surprising for people to hear that there are never-before-seen mammals out there,” Hawkins said. “But there’s a lot we don’t know—especially small nocturnal animals that can be hard to tell apart from one another.”
H. macaron, with dark brown fur and measuring about 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in length, is named after a Vietnamese word for vampire (Ma cà rng) because males of the species have -as, like the fang incisors. Hinckley said more field study is needed to determine what purpose the fangs serve, but their larger size in males suggests they play a role in sex selection. Males also have rust-colored chest markings that Hawkins says may be stained by scent glands.
H. vorax also has dark brown fur but smaller than H. macaron at 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) tall; it has a full black tail, a very narrow snout and is only found on the slopes of Mount Leuser in Northern Sumatra. Hinckley and Hawkins gave the species the Latin name H. vorax after a remarkable description of its behavior from mammologist Frederick Ulmer, who collected the specimens that led to the description of the species on an expedition to Sumatra in 1939. Ulmer described the creature in his field notes, which was incorrect identifying it as a type of shrew: “They are ferocious animals that usually eat the whole bait before the trap floats. Ham skin, coconut, meat, and walnuts are eaten. A shrew dug into the chicken head bait portion of a steel trap before being caught in a nearby Schuyler trap baited with ham skin.”
The other three new species were previously considered subspecies of Hylomys suillus, but all show enough genetic and physical divergence to merit upgrading to species in their own right. They are named H. dorsalis, H. maxi and H. peguensis.
H. dorsalis originates from the mountains of North Borneo and has a conspicuous black stripe that starts at the top of the head and divides its back before fading down the middle of the body. It is about the same size as H. macaron. H. maxi also on the larger end of the new species of soft-furred hedgehogs at 14 centimeters (5.5 inches). These species are found in the mountainous regions of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. H. peguensis smaller, measuring 13 centimeters (5.1 inches), and found in many countries in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Its fur is slightly more yellow in color than other new species, Hawkins said.
The description of new species expands people’s scientific understanding of the natural world can be a tool to improve the conservation of threatened habitats such as the Leuser ecosystem in Northern Sumatra.
“This type of study can help governments and organizations make tough choices about where to prioritize conservation funding to maximize biodiversity,” Hinckley said.
This research was supported by the Smithsonian, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness of Spain as well as the Ministry of Universities, the European Union and Harvard University.
Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society
An integrative taxonomic revision of the Lesser Gymnures (Eulipotyphla: Hylomys) reveals five new species and emerging patterns of local endemism in Tropical East Asia
Article Publication Date
The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest in relation to this work.
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