New Mammals: Coincidence, shopping yield two species

After 21 years without a new kind of monkey being reported in Africa, two research teams working independently in different mountain ranges have described the same novel species. And other researchers, after poking through meat for sale in Southeast Asia, report a rodent that they say justifies a new family among mammals, the first in 31 years.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE. A newly described species of mangabey, baboon-size with an unusual crest of hair and a loud, honking bark, lives in Tanzania. Z. Deretsky/National Science Fdn.

Scientists found the kha-nyou, a new rodent species about the size of a squirrel, during a survey of Laotian village markets. Timmins

The monkey species, now called the highland mangabey or Lophocebus kipunji, has turned up at locations in southern Tanzania 370 kilometers apart. One discovery came from scientists’ curiosity about stories around Mount Rungwe of an elusive monkey. In December 2003, Tim Davenport of Mbeya, Tanzania, who works for the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society, and his team got a good-enough look to recognize it as a new species.

Meanwhile, ornithologists had told Trevor Jones at Udzungwa Mountains National Park in Tanzania that they had spotted sanje mangabeys, an endangered monkey, in a remote forest. But as soon as Jones saw one of the mangabeys there, he says that he knew the brownish color and high crest of hair were all wrong for a sanje mangabey. “I was immediately gobsmacked,” he says.

Last October, in Dar es Salaam, one of Jones’ colleagues happened to be in the same hotel as Davenport. Jones says that a conversation in the bar, with veiled hints of working on “something a bit special,” escalated to revelations that both teams had found the same mangabey species. The Jones team withdrew a paper that it had previously submitted, and the two groups united to describe the new species in the May 20 Science.

There’s “no question” about it being a new species, comments primate systematist Colin Groves of the Australian National University in Canberra. During the past 2 decades, monkey species not previously described by scientists have turned up only rarely, he says, and the finding of one in Africa surprised him. “The startling new discoveries have mainly been in Asia,” he notes.

Loggers are cutting down the forests where the highland mangabey was found near Mount Rungwe, and Davenport calls for immediate protection of the monkey’s already fragmented habitat.

The other new species announced this month, an unusual rodent, was reported by a team surveying biodiversity in the forests of Khammouan province in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The Wildlife Conservation Society–sponsored survey included routine trips through village food markets. Starting in 1996, Robert J. Timmins and others occasionally bought what the local people call the kha-nyou. Dark fur covers a somewhat ratlike body about 25 centimeters long with a furry tail.

The biodiversity surveyors sent market specimens to Paulina Jenkins of the Natural History Museum in London. Details of the bones and teeth, plus DNA analysis, place the animal in the new family Laonastidae, the researchers argue in the latest quarterly issue of Systematics and Biodiversity, dated December 2004. They’ve christened the rodent Laonastes aenigmamus.

Dorothée Huchon, a rodent specialist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, says that the DNA evidence hasn’t yet convinced her that this should be a new family. However, the rodent group “is full of surprises,” she says.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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