Asia’s Unicorn discovered in Laos and Vietnam

December 18th, 2013

Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a 200 pound, two-horned bovine, has roamed around the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam unbeknownst to humans until its discovery in 1992 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry. The large mammal has thus been given the nickname “Asian unicorn” due to its rarity.

A female saola that was brought into a Laos village in 1996, nicknamed Martha. She died within a few days. Photo by: © William Robichaud.

  • The saola is a very rare forest-dwelling mammal whose behavior, breeding and diet still remain a mystery to scientists.
  • Since its discovery, scientists have had only two brief opportunities to study live specimens, once in 1996 and again in 2010. The live animals were brought into villages in Laos; however, in both instances the animals died shortly after being in captivity.
  • So far, the only other means of studying the elusive wild saola is through the use of camera traps. Recently this fall, WWF’s camera trap took an astonishing image of the large mammal traipsing through a protected area in Vietnam; this was the first sighting of a saola in the country in 15 years.
  • These large mammals are threatened by illegal poaching, habitat loss, snares set up by local hunters for other animals, hunting dogs, and new road construction that cuts through forests.
  • The threat of extinction looms heavily over the Asian unicorn with scientists estimating their population size ranging from a few hundred to a mere dozen animals. Even grimmer, the IUCN Red List predicts the remaining number of animals as being too small to be considered a population.
  • Yet, conservationists are not giving up hope. In 2011, the Vietnamese government created the Saola Nature Reserve and programs in both countries have been set up to combat illegal poaching and remove hunting snares in the species territories.
  • Since the establishment of protection programs, forest guard patrols have destroyed over 600 illegal hunting camps and removed over 30,000 snares in saola habitat.
  • The most recent WWF camera trap images confirm the existence of saola in Vietnam and are positive feedback for the extensive conservation efforts. Scientists hope the saola story will stimulate other conservation programs within the region that will also protect the endangered large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Truong Son muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis).

    This camera trap photo with saola on the far right confirms the species existence in Vietnam. Photo by: WWF.

Want to learn more?  Read the full story here – Asia’s ‘unicorn’ photographed in Vietnam

Bonobos are the Congo Basin’s master gardeners

December 18th, 2013

The bonobo (Pan pansicus) is known for being a key stone species, a species that plays an important role in maintaining ecosystem functions. Recent studies now reveal the bonobo as being the Congo Basin’s second greatest and most effective tropical forest “gardener”.

A bonobo (Pan pansicus) enjoys lunch. Photo by David Beaune/MPI

  • Bonobos, primates closely related to chimpanzees, maintain forest diversity by acting as gardeners for the Congo Basin. Through their consumption, digestion, and defecation of seeds, bonobos greatly enhance the reproduction and dispersal of forest vegetation.
  • 97% of the fruit bearing tree seeds that pass through a bonobo are successful at germinating; furthermore, several tree species depend on bonobo interaction for germination.
  • Other major African tropical forest gardeners include: the African forest elephant (the most powerful gardener), monkeys, bats, birds, and rodents. African forest elephants can disperse seeds up to roughly 57 km from the parent tree, yet new research shows bonobos are able to disperse seeds over longer distances and disperse a larger variety of seeds.
  • However, bonobos are listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List due to illegal poaching for bushmeat and habitat loss caused by deforestation. The removal of bonobos as well as other key stone species not only impacts specie populations, but also threatens entire forest ecosystem functions.
  • The public can help save the bonobo and maintain diverse forests through education of forest and animal protection and by purchasing only eco-certified wood products.

    A bonobo (Pan pansicus) in the Congo Basin. Photo by David Beaune/MPI

    A bonobo mom and baby (Pan pansicus). Photo by David Beaune/MPI

Want to learn more?  Read the full story here – Bonobos: the Congo Basin’s great gardeners

Tenrec series: not a hedgehog!

December 4th, 2013

By David Brown & Stuart Short

“Does anybody know what this animal is?” asks Stuart Short as he carefully holds a small mammal up for his audience to see.

Stuart is a biologist and wildlife educator.  He is giving a presentation on the animal to an audience at a natural history museum.  The animal is small and has spikes all over its roundish body.  It has a long snout and small black eyes on a furry face.

“It’s a hedgehog!” a girl in the audience replies.  That is a good guess, but not the right answer.  The girl shouldn’t feel bad though.  Of all the thousands of people that Stuart has talked to about this animal, only four have correctly guessed what it is.

What is this mystery mammal that has tricked so many people about its identity?

It is a lesser hedgehog tenrec.

A lesser hedgehog tenrec. Photo by Wilfried Berns under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

The lesser hedgehog tenrec does indeed look like a hedgehog, so much so that people used to think that the tenrec was a close cousin of the hedgehog.  Scientists now think that the lesser hedgehog tenrec is really the cousin of elephants, aardvarks, and manatees and is not closely related to hedgehogs at all.

Stuart tells the audience that the lesser hedgehog tenrec comes from Madagascar, an island off the coast of East Africa.  There were never any hedgehogs on Madagascar so there was space there for an animal that ate the same diet of insects and other invertebrates that the hedgehog does.  The lesser hedgehog tenrec is that animal.  It protects itself from predators the same way that a real hedgehog does by rolling up into a ball with its spikes sticking outward.  With a similar appearance and lifestyle to hedgehogs, it is no wonder that people are confused about what a tenrec really is.

A boy in the audience asks how the lesser hedgehog tenrec is different from real hedgehogs.   Stuart tells him that one important difference is that you might find the tenrec in a tree: “Unlike hedgehogs, lesser hedgehog tenrecs are semi-arboreal, meaning that they like to climb, and in captivity they need branches to keep properly active. Their claws are hooked to help grip and hold on, rather than straight like the hedgehogs.”

Stuart walks into the middle of the audience so that people can get a closer look at the claws of the tenrec.  The tenrec yawns as Stuart carefully holds it in the palms of his hands.  “It looks like Dracula!” a woman remarks as she glimpses the sharp teeth of the lesser hedgehog tenrec.  Stuart explains that those teeth are used to pierce the shells of the insects that the tenrec eats.

“How does a tenrec clean itself?” a girl asks.  “Does it lick itself clean like a cat?”  Stuart smiles and walks back to the front of the room, picking up an enlarged photo to show the audience.  The photo shows a tenrec happily rolling around in what looks like sand.  “Tenrecs seem to enjoy a sand bath. They will rub it in between their spines and roll their bodies and face into the soft sand especially for this purpose,” Stuart tells the girl.

“Can I get a tenrec as a pet?” a boy asks Stuart.

“Tenrecs require a lot of care and attention and should only be kept by people willing to research their care as much as possible, and who have the time, knowledge and experience with other exotic pets,” Stuart replies.

The best place to see a lesser hedgehog tenrec and appreciate what weird and wonderful animals they are is in a wildlife presentation by an experience tenrec keeper like Stuart or at a zoo where the tenrecs are given the specialized care that they need.

Now if you ever go see a wildlife presentation by Stuart Short or another biologist and they show you a small animal with spikes all over its roundish body, a long snout, and small black eyes on a furry face, you’ll know that it might not be a hedgehog!



Tenrec series: the otter that is notter

December 4th, 2013


By David Brown & Stuart Short

KERSPLASH!  Deep in the rainforests of Central Africa, a biologist sees an animal that looks like an otter dart into a stream.  It has a brown body and a white belly like an otter.  It swims like an otter by moving its long, flat tail through the water.

It is not an otter though.

What is this otter imposter? It is a giant otter-shrew.


A drawn image of a giant otter shrew.

It is not an otter, and it isn’t a shrew either!  The otter-shrew is a tenrec.  Most tenrecs live on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa.  A few species of tenrecs, the otter-shrews, live in Africa.  Tenrecs have an amazing diversity of shapes and lifestyles.  There are tenrecs that look and live like hedgehogs, moles, shrews, and otters.

Julie DeWilde is a wildlife biologist.  She looked for otter-shrews along rivers in the rainforests of the Congo Republic in Central Africa.  She and a team of other biologists were doing a study called a survey to see what kind of animals live along the river.

Giant otter-shrews are very secretive animals.  Very few scientists have seen them.

How do you look for an animal like the giant otter-shrew that doesn’t want to be found?  “We first check out different places to look for signs like footprints, burrows, or feces [poop]. The help of local hunters was essential to guide us with that” says Ms. DeWilde. “I then set up camera traps along shallow rivers in the deep forest where we noticed signs of giant otter-shrews.”  Camera traps are cameras that automatically take a picture when an animal moves past them.

Ms. DeWilde and her team found signs of otter-shrews at five different places along the river.  They then walked along the river to try and see the actual animal.  “During the whole survey, the giant otter-shrew was seen three times by the team. I had the chance to observe it once, by night, swimming very fast and then quickly hiding under a tree trunk”, says Ms. DeWilde. “We set up camera traps around the area, but couldn’t get a photograph.

Why would Ms. DeWilde and her team go to all of this trouble to find giant otter-shrews?  Otter-shrews spend much of their time in the water and they eat fish, frogs, and insects that may absorb pollution in the water.  “Otter-shrews are good indicators for water pollution and thus very important,” says Ms. DeWilde.  An indicator is a species that tells scientists whether a river in an area is polluted.  If otter-shrews are not found in a river then it may mean that the animals that it eats have been wiped out by pollution.

Nobody knows much about how otter-shrews raise their young or how long they live.  “We still have a lot to discover about this species,” Julie DeWilde explains.  Hopefully someday scientists will learn much more about the otter imposter living deep in the African rainforests.


Tenrec series: the amazing multi-purpose tenrecs

December 4th, 2013

By David Brown & Stuart Short

If you owned a tropical island with forests and rivers and deserts and you wanted to populate it with animals that would use all of those ecosystems what would you do?

You could bring in several different kinds of animals to live in the trees, and the water, and burrow in the ground.  Or you could bring in the ancestor of the tenrec and wait for it to develop into different kinds of animals that can live in all of those different places.

Lowland Streaked Tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus). Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay

Tenrecs are a group of mammals that lives on the island of Madagascar off the coast of East Africa.  There are also a few tenrec species in the forests of Central and West Africa.  People have been very confused about what kind of animals tenrecs are, and even about what groups of animals are tenrecs.  This confusion is because there are species of tenrecs that look like many different kinds of animals.  Some tenrecs have small round bodies with spikes all over them.  They look almost exactly like hedgehogs.  The fossorial tenrec with the scientific name Oryzorictes hova digs in the ground and looks like a mole.  There are several tenrec species that look like shrews.  Along rivers in the rain forests of Africa there are three species of tenrecs with body shapes and lifestyles similar to otters.  They are called otter-shrews, although they are neither otters nor shrews!  For a long time people weren’t even sure that otter-shrews were tenrecs.

Who are tenrecs related to?  Because the body shapes of several of the tenrec species resemble hedgehogs and shrews, people thought that tenrecs were related to these groups.  Scientists now think that this is wrong.  By building family trees of mammal groups using genetic material, scientists now think that some of the closest relatives of tenrecs are elephants, aardvarks, and manatees!

How did this weird group of animals evolve into so many different body shapes and lifestyles?  Part of what explains the many different kinds of tenrecs is where they live.  Most tenrec species live on the island of Madagascar where they have been for millions of years.  Dr. P.J. Stephenson is a tenrec expert.  He explains what happened once the tenrecs arrived in Madagascar: “When tenrecs arrived (probably by rafting on logs or floating vegetation) there were no mammals so they evolved to fill many of the available niches. Rodents don’t compete directly as they don’t feed on the same things.”  A niche is the way of life of an animal, what it eats and where it lives.  In most habitats there are many different kinds of animals that compete for the same kind of niche.  When the ancestor of the tenrec arrived on Madagascar millions of years ago though there were few mammals to compete with the tenrecs.  The tenrecs evolved to take over many different niches that they probably could not have if they had to compete with rodents, moles, shrews, hedgehogs, and other species.

Most of the tenrec species are not well known. Scientists have not studied many of the tenrecs in the wild and not many of them are in zoos. The lesser hedgehog tenrec is an exception. The lesser hedgehog tenrec has been kept in captivity since the well-known author and conservationist Gerald Durrell brought them to the UK in the hope they would breed. In August 1967 they did just that! This was the first recorded breeding in the UK and there were more baby tenrecs to come.

Lesser hedgehog tenrec. Photo by Stewart Short.

Keeping lesser hedgehog tenrecs in captivity has helped biologists learn much about this tenrec species and tenrec biology in general. There are 4 other species of tenrec that do well in captivity: the common tenrec (the largest tenrec species), the greater hedgehog tenrec (the larger cousin of the lesser hedgehog tenrec) and the 2 species of streaked tenrec (tenrecs with little yellow and black stripes). There is still a vast amount to learn about these species and their wild cousins.

The basic natural history and behavior of most tenrec species is still unknown to science.  One thing that we do know is that many tenrec species are endangered by habitat destruction in their ecosystems in Madagascar and Africa.  People may wonder why understanding tenrecs and trying to protect them is important when most people have never even heard of these weird animals.  Dr. Stephenson the tenrec expert observes: “If we lose tenrecs it means we will have lost their forest home. This in turn means people in Madagascar will lose all the products and services they take from forests (food, fuel, medicine, building materials, water, soil, etc.). The outside world will also suffer due to the carbon released and the resultant climate change. Therefore, having tenrecs is a good sign the environment in Madagascar can sustain people and nature.  For many people too, the loss of a tenrec would mean the loss of millions of years of evolution and all the scientific knowledge we have yet to discover about these unique mammals.”

Common tenrec bearing its teeth. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /