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Five new species of soft-furred hedgehogs have been identified 

A team of scientists led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has identified five new species of soft-furred hedgehogs in Southeast Asia. 

The discovery highlight the importance of DNA analysis in uncovering the mysteries of the animal kingdom.

Museum specimens 

The researchers used DNA analysis and physical characteristics to describe two previously unknown species of soft-furred hedgehogs and to elevate three subspecies to full species status.

The two new species, Hylomys vorax and H. macarong, are native to the endangered Leuser ecosystem in North Sumatra and Southern Vietnam, respectively. 

Intriguingly, these species were identified using museum specimens collected decades ago, stored at the Smithsonian and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Soft-furred hedgehogs

Soft-furred hedgehogs, or gymnures, belong to the hedgehog family but lack the characteristic spines. Without the spines of their more well-known cousins, soft-furred hedgehogs superficially look a bit like a mixture of a mouse and a shrew with a short tail, noted Arlo Hinckley, the study’s lead author.

“We were only able to identify these new hedgehogs thanks to museum staff that curated these specimens across countless decades and their original field collectors,” explained Hinckley. “By applying modern genomic techniques like we did many years after these hedgehogs were first collected, the next generation will be able to identify even more new species.”

Lack of knowledge 

Hinckley said these small mammals are active during the day and night and are omnivorous, likely eating a diversity of insects and other invertebrates as well as some fruits as opportunities present themselves.

“Based on the lifestyles of their close relatives and field observations, these hedgehogs likely nest in hollows and take cover while foraging among tree roots, fallen logs, rocks, grassy areas, undergrowth and leaf litter,” said Hinckley. “But, because they’re so understudied, we are limited to speculate about the details of their natural history.”

Focus of the study 

Hinckley’s interest in the Hylomys group started during his doctoral studies in 2016. Subsequent genetic data and studies suggested the existence of more species within this group. This led to a meticulous examination of specimens across several natural history collections worldwide.

The researchers analyzed 232 physical specimens and 85 tissue samples, combining modern and historical museum specimens. 

The genetic analysis, conducted at Doñana Biological Station and Smithsonian’s laboratories, revealed seven distinct genetic lineages within Hylomys, pointing to five new species, later confirmed by physical observations.

Hylomys species

H. macarong

Named after the Vietnamese word for vampire due to its long, fang-like incisors, this species features dark brown fur and measures about 14 centimeters.

H. vorax

Slightly smaller, with dark brown fur, a black tail, and a very narrow snout, it is found only on Mount Leuser in Northern Sumatra.

H. dorsalis

Native to Northern Borneo, it has a distinct dark stripe on its back and is similar in size to H. macarong.

H. maxi

Found in the mountains of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, this species also measures about 14 centimeters.

H. peguensis

Smaller in size, it inhabits mainland Southeast Asia and has slightly yellow-colored fur.

Study implications

Hinckley emphasized the role that such studies play in informing conservation priorities, especially in biodiversity-rich but threatened areas like the Leuser ecosystem.

“This kind of study can help governments and organizations make hard choices about where to prioritize conservation funding to maximize biodiversity.”

The study is published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Image Credit: David Awcock

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