Not One, Not Two, But Four New Species!

December 2, 2013

In our recent history, it has not been uncommon for scientists to collect plant and animal specimens from the remotest corners of our planet, and then bring them home to be a part of a collection at a museum.  It’s also not uncommon for some of these specimens to remain undescribed (meaning that no official characterization of the animal has been published in the scientific literature) for years, due to the large number of specimens in the collection.  Many times, new species have been discovered hiding among the specimens in a collection, sometimes 50 years after the specimen was collected.  Of course, it helps if the animal is fossilized – this is the reason scientists are still discovering new species of dinosaurs that once walked the earth!

Today, however, it is rare that a team of scientists will go out into the field to survey an unexplored part of the planet, and discover more than one new species while there.  But a team including Field Museum scientists has discovered not one or two, but a remarkablefour new animal species in eastern Africa!  Two are bat species, commonly known as nose-leaf bats, and two are new species of shrews.

Three new mammals were found during a 30-day expedition in 2007 to the Misotshi-Kabogo highlands, part of the Albertine Rift mountain zone, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which separate the region from Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.  It has taken almost five years for the team of scientists to fact check, cross-reference with other specimens, consult experts, and write up an official and accurate description of the four species.

The Albertine Rift is recognized as one of Africa’s biological hotspots, due to high levels of species richness, uniqueness and diversity.  In fact, Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where the fourth species was found, is one of the only places in the world where mountain gorillas can be seen.  Until now, they’ve gotten all of the attention, and other mammals residing in the region have not been properly studied.

“We found three of the four new species from a single forest, and the fourth from a forest nearby,” said Julian Kerbis Peterhans, Adjunct Curator at The Field Museum and expert on the region.  “This is quite unique – more often, such finds would be made on islands, since species are reproductively isolated and evolve independently of their counterparts on the ‘mainland’, so to speak.  However, mountain communities can function like islands because their forested habitats are isolated from adjacent forests by intervening lowland communities, in which these highland species are unable to exist.”

For the past 25 years, Kerbis has dedicated much if his career to collecting information about this region of Africa.  Thus, it waspossible to recognize that all four specimens collected were indeed new species, since the world’s relevant material was already available for comparison.

“These animals are quite distinct from those we’ve already seen,” said Kerbis.  “For example, we were able to identify that each specimen was a member of a new species based on external, cranial and dental measurements alone, without the use of molecular technology or call frequencies for the bats.” 

The discovery of brand new species demonstrates the need for the conservation of this isolated reservoir of biodiversity.  In fact, the local communities and the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo have elected to create a national park to protect this unique region, though concerns over established mining concessions are hampering its creation. 

“Sadly, such conflicts between conservation and economic development lie at the heart of all efforts to protect wild areas, says Kerbis.  “The more information we can provide to local authorities about the uniqueness of their landscapes, the more likely it is that policies will be implemented to protect the area and to conserve global biodiversity.”

Find out more about the mammalian research projects being conducted by Field Museum scientists.

Images courtesy of A.J. Plumptre (Wildlife Conservation Society), Mike Huhndorf and Ben Marks.