New carnivore species identified in Madagascar

11 October 2010

A new species of carnivore from the wetlands of Madagascar has been identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), Conservation International (CI) and Nature Heritage (NI).

The small speckled brown mongoose-like animal is about the size of a cat. It belongs to a family of carnivores called the Eupleridae, only known in Madagascar, and it is likely to be one of the most threatened carnivores in the world.

One of only 2 Durrell's vontsira animals captured and released so far.

One of only 2 Durrell's vontsira animals captured and released so far. This rare find is a new carnivore species from Madagascar. © Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

The most well-known member of this family is the fossa, which is the largest of the Madagascan carnivores.

The new species has been named Durrell’s vontsira, Salanoia durrelli, in honour of Gerald Durrell, the conservationist and writer who died 15 years ago.

Little-known vontsira

Very little is known about the vontsiras as Natural History Museum zoologist Paula Jenkins explains. ‘Durrell’s vontsira is very rare, as it is known only from 2 animals captured, photographed and briefly observed before being released, and from the type specimen carefully preserved in the Museum so that it is available for future research.’

Rarity of new carnivores

It is extremely rare to discover a new species of carnivore. 'The last carnivore discovered in Madagascar was Grandidier’s vontsira, Galidictis grandidieri, which was described more than 20 years ago,’ says Jenkins.

'More recently, the Bourlon’s genet, Genetta bourloni, was found in west Africa. It was described 7 years ago.'

First seen in 2004
in The Lac Alaotra wetlands in central eastern Madagascar

The Lac Alaotra wetlands in central eastern Madagascar where the new carnivore Durrell's vontsira is from © Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

The new carnivore was first seen swimming in a lake by DWCT researchers during a field trip in 2004.

'We have known for some time that a carnivore lives in the Lac Alaotra marshes, but we’ve always assumed that it was a brown-tailed vontsira that is also found in the eastern rainforests,' says Fidimalala Bruno Ralainasolo, a conservation biologist working for DWCT who originally captured the animal.

Museum specimens

The new creature was compared to those in the Natural History Museum's collection, which has over a third of a million specimens, and specifically with the brown-tailed vontsira, Salanoia concolor, its closest relative.

Jenkins explains, ‘I was able to take measurements and make detailed morphological comparisons with specimens in the national collection.’

‘In addition to the difference in colour of the fur, these detailed observations showed that there were obvious differences in the structure of the skull and teeth and that the size and shape of the pads on the paws clearly distinguished this animal from the brown-tailed vontsira,’ says Jenkins.

‘My colleague Clive Moncrieff, a biometrician at the Museum, analysed the measurements and the results clearly confirmed the distinctiveness of the new species.

‘This research is a fantastic example of the importance and relevance that Museum collections have for contemporary scientific research.

‘Though people may be aware that museums such as the Natural History Museum hold reference collections, little is known about how critical these collections are to our understanding of the world today.’

Madagscan hotspot

Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands are known as a biodiversity hotspot because of their great richness in species. They have 7 families of plants, and 15 families of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, which live nowhere else on Earth.

Threatened habitat
The Lac Alaotra wetland habitat, home to the Durrell's vontsira, is under pressure from pollutio

The Lac Alaotra wetland habitat, home to the Durrell's vontsira, is under pressure from pollution, silting and invasive species. © Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

Durrell’s vontsira is found in the Lac Alaotra wetlands in central eastern Madagascar. Sadly, the Alaotra grebe, Tachybaptus rufolavatus, from the same area, was announced extinct just a few months ago.

The Lac Alaotra wetland habitat has suffered over the past decades from pollution from fertilizer and pesticides, silting and the introduction of invasive fish and plants that compete with those native to the area.

Uncertain future

This habitat degradation, along with a small population size and restricted distribution, make the Durrell’s vontsira vulnerable to extinction.

‘This species is probably the carnivore with one of the smallest ranges of any in the world, and likely to be one of the most threatened’, said Frank Hawkins of CI, co-author of the paper describing the species.

‘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’.

Ralainasolo adds, ‘The Lac Alaotra wetland habitat is a highly significant site for wildlife and the resources it provides people. DWCT is working closely with local communities to ensure its sustainable use and to conserve Durrell's vontsira and other important species.'

Urgent work to be done

Jenkins explains the future work that will need to be done. ‘The most important research priorities for the new species include investigation of its ecological role in the wetlands, estimation of its population size and distribution, the recognition and assessment of potential threats to the population, and the conservation steps needed to reduce any serious threats.‘

Stephan M Funk of Nature Heritage, formerly at DWCT and one of the authors of the paper, says ‘Population genetics and evolution of Durrell’s vontsira and related species remain poorly understood, highlighting the importance of future research. More important, however, is the protection of the wetlands around Lac Alaotra, which remain highly threatened.’

This research is published in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

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