Initially mistaken for one of its close relatives, a group of small, spiky mammals in eastern China has now been identified as a new species: the eastern forest hedgehog.
Researchers first scooped up one of these dark spike balls in the province of Anhui in 2018. It looked like a Hugh’s hedgehog (Mesechinus hughi), a species typically found some 1,000 kilometers west. But the rogue hedgehog’s DNA didn’t quite match that of its westward relatives. So scientists collected six more individuals from scrublands and forests around Anhui and the neighboring province of Zhejiang for a closer look.
Comparing the physical appearance and DNA of these hedgehogs with the four known species in the Mesechinus genus confirmed the newly found hedgehogs are unique, the team reports November 28 in ZooKeys. Officially named Mesechinus orientalis, the eastern forest hedgehog brings the total number of known hedgehog species to 19.
Kevin Campbell, a biologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada not involved in the work, was not surprised by the debut of a new hedgehog species in China. “It’s a very large landscape, it’s a very varied landscape,” he says. “In the last 10 years or so, there’s been a huge increase in the number of species recognized from that area.”
About as long as a pencil and weighing roughly as much as a can of soda, M. orientalis rivals M. hughi for puniest Mesechinus hedgehog. But M. orientalis is distinguishable from M. hughi by the shapes of a couple of its teeth and its skull near the temple. Eastern forest hedgehogs also boast the shortest spines of any species in the genus. Their black-tipped spines are a mere 1.8 to 2 centimeters long, about a half-centimeter shorter than M. hughi’s spines.
“The mammals of China, especially small mammals, have not been well studied,” says study coauthor Kai He, a mammologist at Guangzhou University in China.
For a long time, Mesechinus hedgehogs were thought to roam only northern China and nearby Mongolia and Russia. That changed in 2018, when scientists realized that a recently discovered group of hedgehogs living on Mount Gaoligong — thousands of kilometers southwest of other species’ stomping grounds — was a new species, M. wangi.
Finding a new Mesechinus species in eastern China has once again greatly expanded the known range of this genus. And taking a census of what small mammals live where, He says, is key to guiding wildlife conservation efforts.