The hunt is on for squirrel never seen alive before

16 Aug 20166 Shares

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The mystery squirrels have confused scientists for years

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A squirrel, equipped with a scaly tail and no end of intrigue, has become one of the most sought-after animals in the world.

There are 14 Zenkerella insignis specimens in museums around the world. It is estimated to have evolved over the past 49m years, but there’s not a whole lot more that scientists know about the rodents.

The lack of information is because those 14 specimens – of which three are new – are all we have on the Zenkerella species.

Zenkerella

Called a ‘living fossil’, the rodent’s Central African dwelling makes it difficult to find alive, though there are renewed hopes that this can be achieved.

Zenkerella could be seen as the ultimate Pokémon that scientists have still not been able to find or catch alive,” said Erik Seiffert, professor of cell and neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

“After all, it probably only shows up in the middle of the night, deep in the jungles of central Africa, and might spend most of its time way up in tall trees where it would be particularly hard to see.”

Seiffert and colleagues sampled Zenkerella’s DNA for the first time and the paper, published in PeerJ, details how researchers analysed Zenkerella’s genes using cells from cheek swabs.

This male specimen of Zenkerella insignis was found near the village of Ureca on Bioko, an island off the west coast of Africa. Image via Steven Heritage

This male specimen of Zenkerella insignis was found near the village of Ureca on Bioko, an island off the west coast of Africa. Photo via Steven Heritage

Then they compared them with other rodents in an extensive online database, which includes all rodent sub-orders and families.

Of the thousands of mammal species alive today, only Zenkerella and five others are the “sole surviving members of ancient lineages”, according to Seiffert, dating back 49m years.

Within this select group, only Zenkerella, the monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) and the pen-tailed tree shrew (Ptilocercus lowii) have been given the title ‘living fossil’.

David Fernandez, study co-author, is treating the first whole-body specimen of Zenkerella that has been found.. Image via Grainne McCabe

David Fernandez, study co-author, treating the first whole-body specimen of Zenkerella that has been found. Photo via Grainne McCabe

“It’s an amazing story of survival,” Seiffert said, noting that other living fossils are far better studied.

He and his team know nothing of the squirrel’s way of life, how it eats, walks, sleeps, stores food etc. These specimens studied were caught in snares which, as yet, is the only way they have ever been seen.

“We are only just starting to work on basic descriptions of Zenkerella’s anatomy,” said Seiffert.

“It’s fun to think that there might be other elusive mammalian species out there, deep in the rainforests of central Africa that will be new to science.”

Main squirrel image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com