London, England – A new species of small carnivore, known as Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) has been identified by researchers from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Natural History Museum, London, Nature Heritage, Jersey, and Conservation International (CI). The small, cat-sized, speckled brown carnivore from the marshes of the Lac Alaotra wetlands in central eastern Madagascar weighs just over half a kilogramme and belongs to a family of carnivores only known from Madagascar. It is likely to be one of the most threatened carnivores in the world. The findings are outlined in the latest issue of the taxonomic journal Systematics and Biodiversity.
EDITORS: Download photos available for media use
The carnivore was first seen swimming in a lake by researchers from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on a field trip surveying bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur griseus alaotrensis) in 2004. After briefly examining the animal, the team suspected they had witnessed a new species and so took photographs. By examining brown-tailed vontsira (Salanoia concolor) specimens in the Natural History Museum's collections, Museum zoologists confirmed the animal was a new species. The brown-tailed vontsira is the closest relative of the new species, which zoologists named in honour of the conservationist and writer Gerald Durrell, who died 15 years ago.
Fidimalala Bruno Ralainasolo, a conservation biologist working for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust who originally captured the new carnivore, commented "We have known for some time that a carnivore lives in the Lac Alaotra marshes, but we've always assumed it was a brown-tailed vontsira that is also found in the eastern rainforests. However, differences in its skull, teeth, and paws have shown that this animal is clearly a different species with adaptations to life in an aquatic environment. It is a very exciting discovery and we decided to honour our founder, the world renowned conservationist Gerald Durrell, by naming this new species after him. However, the future of the species is very uncertain because the Lac Alaotra marshes are extremely threatened by agricultural expansion, burning and invasive plants and fish. It is a highly significant site for wildlife and the resources it provides people, and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is working closely with local communities to ensure its sustainable use and to conserve Durrell's vontsira and other important species."
Paula Jenkins, Natural History Museum zoologist said, "We know very little about the small mongoose-like vontsiras because they are poorly known and rarely seen or studied in the field. This research is a fantastic example of the importance and relevance that Museum collections have for contemporary scientific research. Though people may know that museums such as the Natural History Museum hold reference collections, few people are aware how critical these collections are to our understanding of the world today."
Stephan M. Funk of Nature Heritage, formerly at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and co-author of the paper, said "Population genetics and evolution of the Durrell's vontsira and related species remain badly understood, highlighting the importance of future research. More important, however, is the protection of the wetlands around Lac Alaotra, which remain highly threatened."
The habitat of Durrell's vontsira has been suffering from a number of threats over the past decades, from introduced fish to silting and pollution from fertiliser and pesticides. While the conservation status of the new species remains to be formally evaluated, it is likely to be threatened as a result of small population size, restricted distribution and the impact of habitat degradation.
Remarkably, Lac Alaotra hit the headlines only a few months ago when the extinction of the Alaotra grebe (Tachybaptus rufolavatus) was announced. Now a new species has been described from the very area where the last Alaotra grebe was seen.
Frank Hawkins of Conservation International, co-author of the paper describing the species, said "This species is probably the carnivore with one of the smallest ranges in the world, and likely to be one of the most threatened. The Lac Alaotra wetlands are under considerable pressure, and only urgent conservation work to make this species a flagship for conservation will prevent its extinction."
For further information, images and interviews please contact individual press office:
Natural History Museum
001 703 341 2561
Mobile: 001 571 232 0455
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Mobile: 0049 1577 307 9096
Notes for editors
Investigations into the Status of a New Taxon of Salanoia (Mammalia: Carnivora: Eupleridae) From the Marshes of Lac Alaotra, Madagascar is published in the September issue of Systematics and Biodiversity. Systematics and Biodiversity is published by Taylor & Francis Journals and is devoted to whole-organism biology. It emphasises the importance and multi-disciplinary significance of systematics, with contributions that address the implications of other fields for systematics, or that advance understanding of other fields through taxonomic knowledge, especially in relation to the nature, origins, and conservation of biodiversity, at all taxonomic levels. The Editor-in-Chief is Prof. Elliot Shubert.
WEBSITE: Systematics and Biodiversity, Natural History Museum
READ THE PAPER: Investigations into the status of a new taxon of Salanoia (Mammalia: Carnivora: Eupleridae) from the marshes of Lac Alaotra, Madagascar
Salanoia durrelli belongs to the family Eupleridae of the order Carnivora and this family is only known from Madagascar. The fossa is the largest and most well known member of this family group.
Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, with seven families of plants and 15 families of vertebrate animals that live nowhere else on Earth. Of Madagascar's 60 lemur species, some, such as the ring-tailed lemur and indri are well known, while others have only recently been discovered. Recent conservation work to expand protected areas and conserve these species has been conducted with local people and development in mind.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about the Biodiversity Hotspots
Winner of Visit London's 2009 "Best London for Free Experience Award", the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in more than 68 countries.
Conservation International (CI) – Building on a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity. With headquarters in Washington DC, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information, visit www.conservation.org
The Natural History Museum is part of the worldwide celebrations of the International Year of Biodiversity 2010. The diversity of life on Earth is crucial for human well-being and now is the time to act to preserve it. For information on events, initiatives and exhibitions across the UK, visit www.biodiversityislife.net
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an international charity working globally to save species from extinction. Headquartered in Jersey, Channel Islands, Durrell works in some of the most threatened environments on the planet and has over 50 active field projects in 14 countries around the world, focusing on critically endangered species and highly threatened island ecosystems. Durrell has a unique structure, based around three core pillars of specialisation: a wildlife park in Jersey, field programmes around the world and an International Training Centre. Durrell's aim is to address conservation challenges where each of the three areas of the Trust can act in synergy.
Nature Heritage is a internationally operating consultancy specializing in environmental conservation and cultural heritage, linking the scientific research with active environmental education and outreach. Based in Europe and South America, we work worldwide for the private and public sector: NGOs, governments, education institutions and universities. For more information, visit www.natureheritage.org