Utah scientist helps discover new mouse species -- and maybe a new genus

06/07/04

Utah Museum of Natural History researcher helps make surprising find in the Philippines

June 7, 2004 -- A team of American and Filipino biologists has discovered a new species or perhaps a new genus of mouse in the Philippines that took them quite by surprise.

The tiny mouse was captured on Mount Banahaw, a national park in the south-central portion of Luzon Island, only about 50 miles from Manila.

The bright-orange animal has a large head, heavily muscled jaws and powerful teeth that can open hard nuts. It weighs about 15 grams, and has a body length of three inches and a tail of four inches. The mammal's whiskers are about eight times as wide as its head, and there is a second set of "whiskers" that arise from a patch at the back edge of each eye.

"Nearly all of the many unique small mammals on Luzon Island are descended from just two species that reached the Philippines from the Asian mainland about 10 million to 15 million years ago," said Eric Rickart, curator of vertebrates at the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah and one of the team leaders.

Rickart has been studying biological diversity in the Philippines for over 15 years, and describes the Philippines as having biological diversity equal to "the Galapagos Islands times 10, with one of the highest concentrations of unique mammals of any place in the world."

Lawrence Heaney, curator of mammals at The Field Museum in Chicago and the other co-leader of the team, said it was "not related to any of the other rodents" found in the northern Philippines.

The new species was found by a joint team from The Field Museum, the Philippine National Museum, Utah Museum of Natural History, and Laksambuhay Conservation in the Philippines. The team was scouting the mountain, considered a holy site by some Filipino sects, for unusual small mammal species.

According to Danilo Balete, a biologist in the Philippines and co-leader of the team, they captured the tiny mouse several yards above the forest floor on top of a tangle of large vines in an area of regenerating lowland forest. Logging had previously damaged the area, but Balete said, "The local farmer's organization has insisted on replanting native trees and allowing the forest to regenerate as a means of protecting their watershed." The farmers depend on rice and vegetables that they grow for their livelihood.

Only about three percent of the original mature lowland rain forest in the Philippines remains today, and it had been feared that many species had been lost even before they were discovered. The Philippines is often listed as one of the highest global priorities for conservation.

"Finding this wonderful new species in lowland forests gives us greater hope for successful conservation of biological diversity in the Philippines, and is due to the hard work and energetic defense of the forest by the local farmers," Rickart said. "Given that second growth forest is widespread, this species may eventually prove to be pretty common."

Rickart and Heaney said the animal is not related to any of the other rodents known on the main Philippines island of Luzon and they are not clear yet as to what genus the mammal belongs. It may represent a new genus, the taxonomic level above species. The single specimen, which will become the type specimen of the new species, will be studied in Chicago, and then returned to the Philippine National Museum.

Philippine Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Elisea Gozun hailed what she described as an "excellent" find, which further proves the vast biological diversity of the country. "The diversified presence of our flora and fauna is beneficial to the country's economic and social development," she said.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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