October 15, 2010

New Species Of Carnivorous Mammal Found In Madagascar

Scientists have discovered a new species of carnivorous mammal in eastern Madagascar, according to several media reports on Thursday. 

The mongoose-like creature has been dubbed Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) after the late British conservationist Gerald Durrell, and belongs to the eupleridae family endemic to Madagascar.

The animal was discovered in the wetlands of Lake Alaotra, Madagascar's largest lake.  The marsh habitat has suffered from invasive species and pollution, and scientists believe that Durrell's vontsira could be one of the world's most threatened mammals.

"We noticed the existence of this mammal several years ago but we thought it was a species we already knew and that is found in the forest," said researcher Robert Bourou, an assistant researcher with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, during an interview with the AFP news agency.

Bourou participated in an operation to capture a specimen of Durrell's vontsira in 2004, which allowed scientists at the Natural History Museum in London to determine they had found a species that was unknown until now.

But experts worry that Durrell's vontsira is already highly endangered.

"It is likely one of the species of carnivore that numbers the fewest individuals and that are the most endangered in the world," AFP quoted Frank Hawkins of Conservation International as saying.

Bush fires and scarce rainfall are drying up the Alaotra wetlands, and scientists have worked for years to increase local awareness of the importance of protecting the area's biodiversity.

"We hope this discovery will encourage local residents to protect their wetlands," Bourou added.

The discovery of new mammal species is uncommon, and finding a new carnivore species is "particularly unusual", said Dr. Paula Jenkins of the Natural History Museum.

The last time a new carnivorous mammal was discovered in Madagascar was in 1986.

"Durrell's vontsira is incredibly rare," Dr. Jenkins told BBC news.

"We know of only two animals in the wild. It has only been found in the wetlands of [Lake] Alaotra in Madagascar, so it lives in a very small area and is consequently vulnerable to the pressures on this threatened habitat," she said.

Scientists still know very little about the behavior and biology of Durrell's vontsira, but believe it may be specifically adapted for an aquatic or semi-aquatic environment.

If true, that would be atypical for a mammal, said Professor John Fa, chief conservation officer at Durrell.

"If that is the case, it's very interesting indeed; mongooses normally live in arid or forested areas," he told BBC News.

"We think it feeds on fish and small mammals in the lake and if it's a mongoose that catches fish - that's very unusual."

The scientists hope to return to Lake Alaotra to conduct a more detailed study, and possibly tag and follow the small mammals to see if their habitat is confined to the lake.


Image Caption: Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) - The first new carnivorous mammal to be discovered for 24 years. It was discovered on the Island of Madagascar by a team from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), the Natural History Museum, London, Nature Heritage, and Conservation International (CI). © Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust


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