They live in the forests and limestone outcrops of Laos. With long whiskers, stubby legs and a long, furry tail, they are rodents but unlike any seen before by wildlife scientists. They are definitely not rats or squirrels, and are only vaguely like a guinea pig or a chinchilla. And they often show up in Laotian outdoor markets being sold as food.
It was in such markets that visiting scientists came upon the animals, and after long study, determined that they represented a rare find: an entire new family of wildlife. The discovery was announced yesterday by the Wildlife Conservation Society and described in a report in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.
The new species in this previously unknown family is called kha-nyou (pronounced ga-nyou) by local people. Scientists found that differences in the skull and bone structure and in the animal’s DNA revealed it to be a member of a distinct family that diverged from others of the rodent order millions of years ago. “To find something so distinct in this day and age is just extraordinary,” said Dr. Robert J. Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the discoverers. “For all we know, this could be the last remaining mammal family left to be discovered.”
Naturalists had trouble recalling when a new family of mammals was last identified. It may have been when, in the 1970’s, a new family of bats was found in Thailand.
Of course, a couple years back the skunks were revised into their own family. But look how little we know about the world. A new family of rodents, in plain sight, waiting for someone to buy it on the market! I think there was a family of rodents from the Atacama a few years back as well, but I can’t remember the details.
Every time my colleagues go into the Philippines, they come back with several new species of mammals, oddball animals which no scientist ever described. They found them because they trapped on a mountain no scientist ever got to before. They know before setting foot on the mountain, how many new species they’ll probably catch.
The trivial point to be made about evolution is that each species fits nicely into our understanding of the mammals. And that the way they diversify is predictable to some extent, but random in the specifics, is what evolutionary biology predicts.
This is a hystricognath rodent, connected by morphology and genes to the guinea pigs and agoutis of South America, and our porcupines, found around the world (not Australia or Antarctica). In Southeast Asia, this large group of rodents split off a small branch, which bloomed into this fascinating little rock rat, and I don’t doubt more will turn up.
I’d be very surprised if this is the last new species of mammal that gets described,