For my New Year’s Day post, I thought I’d review some of the important zoological discoveries of 2013, especially regarding new species that have just been discovered. A few weeks ago, the word came out that a new species of tapir (pronounced TAY-pir, they are a pig-sized group of mammals with a long proboscis and three to four toes, distantly related to rhinos) had just been found and formally described. For most of us in the life sciences, this is exciting if not exactly earth-shaking news. As our techniques for identifying new species are getting better and better, we are finding more and more examples of creatures that were known to the local indigenous peoples, but not yet recognized by zoologists. In most cases, these new species are only subtly different from previously described species, so zoologists may have seen the creature before, but not yet recognized that it was a different species from its more familiar close relatives. In many cases, the specimens may have already been collected and were sitting in museums, misidentified. This is particularly true in the case of new species that don’t look that different externally (sibling species), but can be distinguished based on more subtle differences. In the old days, sibling species had to be identified based on things like behavior. Now, there are a number of new species recognized based on molecular differences that are not manifested in anatomical differences we can see with the naked eye.
But new species of insects or rodents or other inconspicuous animals are identified all the time. What makes this discovery so unusual is that it is a large mammal, and only a handful of new large mammal species have been found in the past 30 years. As Darren Naish points out:
New, large terrestrial mammals are not reported often, but they are reported on occasion. Since the 1990s, the Saola or Vu Quang ox Pseudoryx nghetinhensis (Van Dung et al. 1993), Dingiso Dendrolagus mbaiso (Flannery et al. 1995), Giant or Large-antlered muntjac Muntiacus vuquangensis (Do Tuoc et al. 1994), Small red brocket Mazama bororo (Duarte & Jorge 1996), Kipunji Rungwecebus kipunji(Beckman 2005, Jones et al. 2005), Giant peccary Pecari maximus (van Roosmalen et al. 2007, though see Gongora et al. 2007) and Burmese snub-nosed monkeyRhinopithecus strykeri (Geissmann et al. 2010) have all been named – an encouraging indication that there might be a small number of cryptic large mammals still out there.
To this list could be added the new relative of the raccoons and kinkajous recently described, the olinguito, found in the cloud forests of Central and South America. It is just slightly smaller than its close relative, the olingo, which was well known to science. In fact, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., had an olinguito on display, misidentified as an olingo for many years. Zookeepers tried to get it to breed their other olingos for many years before it died, without luck. Turns out that it was the wrong species!
Tapirs are particularly large-bodied animals (pig-sized to cow-sized) so you’d think they would be hard to miss. Until now, only four species have been recognized: the Brazilian tapir Tapirus terrestris, the Baird’s tapir, T. bairdii, the mountain tapir, T. pinchaque, and the Asian tapir, T. indicus. The first three are from different parts of Latin America, and the last one is (obviously) from the tropics of southeast Asia. Given their size, it less likely that we would be overlooking one species so long. Nevertheless, Cozzuol et al. (2013) have just proposed the name Tapirus kabomani for their new discovery from the Brazilian Amazon basin. (“Kabomani” is the local tribal name for the creature). It is a much darker brown color and smaller in body size, with a straighter snout and shorter limbs than the Brazilian tapir that lives in the same area. There are a number of anatomical differences in the skull as well. The molecular data clearly show it is distinct from the four other living species of tapir, a primitive sister-group to the T. terrestris-T. pinchaque clade. Although the final verdict is not yet in (the paper has just been published), it seems that it has enough distinctive characters in its anatomy and molecular differences to be justified.
One of the reasons it was discovered so late is that is a very elusive species, roaming mainly at night, and almost impossible to observe in nature except with motion-sensitive camera traps. As with many of the other new species, these subtle differences were just missed by earlier explorers, and only the indigenous peoples noticed them. As it turns out, it has been known to scientists for a long time; it was just shot and thrown in the collections and misidentified. In fact, Cozzuol et al. (2013) found that no less a personage than President Theodore Roosevelt himself had shot one during his disastrous expedition up the Amazon in 1912. (The skin and skull were originally misidentified, but they are still stored at the American Museum of Natural History in New York).
This isn’t the first time this has happened. For many years, South American paleontologists recognized an extinct species of peccary or javelina (pig-like American mammals, family Tayassuidae, only distantly related to true pigs, family Suidae, of the Old World). It was described in 1930 by Florentino Ameghino based on a few fossil teeth as Catagonus wagneri. Then in 1971, explorers in the remote Gran Chaco region of Paraguay and Argentina found a living population of the Chacoan peccary, which was fully redescribed in 1975 (Wetzel et al., 1975). Some of the other creatures on the list above were already in the collections as well, but just misidentified.
So, does this justify the argument that some cryptozoologists make: If these new species are being found all the time, how can we rule out Bigfoot or Nessie or Yeti or Mokele Mbembe? As Daniel Loxton and I discuss in our new book Abominable Science, there’s an important difference. Nearly all the “new” species mentioned above are relatively small in body size, and closely related to other living animals, so it was easy to mistake them for familiar species until more detailed studies could be undertaken. None were outside the normal range of zoological diversity, and none were shocking to zoologists who work on such creatures. The last really “large, shocking” land animals to be found and named by science were the mountain gorilla, the Komodo dragon, and the okapi, and all were found over a century ago. In addition, nearly all of these discoveries are made in the remote jungles of Southeast Asia, Africa, or the Amazon, not in well-populated areas like Scotland or the Pacific Northwest. Finally, all of these creatures were well documented by specimens (hides, bones, sometimes complete specimens), most of which were already in our collections and just misidentified. By contrast, the major cryptids that live on land or in lakes (Bigfoot, Yeti, Nessie, Mokele Mbembe, Champ, Ogopogo, and others) have not only failed every other test of their existence (discussed in our book), but not one legitimate specimen of them exists, either misidentified in older collections, or found in recent years. That’s a big difference, and that’s a strong reason to doubt that such creatures are real.
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- Flannery, T. F., Boeadi, and A. L. Szalay. 1995. A new tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus: Marsupialia) from Irian Jaya, Indonesia, with notes on ethnography and the evolution of tree-kangaroos. Mammalia 59: 65-84.
- Geissmann. T, Lwin. G, Aung. S, Naing Aung. T, Aung. Z M, Hla. T, Grindley. M. & Momberg. F. 2010. A new species of snub-nosed monkey, Genus RhinopithecusMilne-Edwards, 1872 (Primates, Colobinae), from northern Kachin State, northeastern Myanmar. American Journal of Primatology doi:10.1002/ajp.20894
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- Wetzel, R.M., DuBos, R.E., Martin, R.L., & Myers, P. 1975. Catagonus, an ‘extinct’ peccary alive in Paraguay. Science 189 (4200), 379-381.