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Newly discovered pangolin species could aid in fight against extinction

Pangolins are among the world’s most heavily poached animals. The elusive creatures are under threat, but the discovery of a mysterious species that’s new to science could help conservationists fight against their extinction, researchers say.

There are eight previously known species of pangolin — four found in Asia and four in Africa. Resembling anteaters, the solitary mammals are illegally hunted and trafficked for their meat and distinctive armorlike scales, which some people believe have medicinal value. 

Scientists studying contraband scales — confiscated in Hong Kong and China’s Yunnan province between 2012 and 2019 — identified genetic markers not seen in any known pangolins. The genomic analysis revealed an unexpected ninth species, which the team has named Manis mysteria.

The researchers described their findings in a study published Monday in the journal PNAS.

“We were quite surprised because we did not expect a new species could be discovered from seized scales,” said study coauthor Jing-Yan Hu, a research assistant at the State Key Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-Resource at Yunnan University, in an email.

The study team did a structural analysis of 33 scale samples from several different confiscations. Five scales were attached to skin and three to claws. The remaining samples were from individual scales found to be from pangolin tails, backs, bellies or heads.

Genomics can help protect threatened species

The scales’ form initially suggested they belonged to one of four species of pangolin found in Asia. But DNA analysis showed that their “genomic data provide robust and compelling evidence that it is a new pangolin species distinct from those previously recognized,” Hu said.

Finding a new “large-bodied mammal” is not an everyday occurrence, said Dr. Aryn Wilder, a researcher specializing in conservation genetics at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Wilder was not involved in the new research.

One of the most recent of such finds made through genomics was the 2017 identification of an unknown species of orangutan. “Although not unheard of, discoveries like these are pretty unusual,” Wilder said, adding that the pangolin study’s results were convincing.

“I thought the methods were solid and their findings were pretty conclusive,” she said.

Expanded understanding of ‘pangolin diversity and evolution’

Little is known of Manis mysteria, but now that its existence has been established, conservationists can work to protect it.

Uncovering a ninth species is significant, Hu said. The revelation “greatly expands current knowledge of pangolin diversity and evolution,” Hu said. “The discovery also urges more conservation concerns and joint efforts to help tackle the supply and demand of pangolin trade.”

The finding is very important, Wilder said in an email. “The identification of this new species will allow conservationists to focus management efforts to prevent its extinction.”

Extinction is defined on a species level. “Once a species is extinct, its unique biodiversity is lost,” Wilder said. “With the discovery of a new pangolin species, one that is likely endangered, and with more research to learn about its range, ecology, life-history and conservation status, conservation strategies can be tailored specifically to ensure that this species survives.”

Because Manis mysteria has just a slight genetic variation from other pangolins, the species is currently described as “cryptic.”

Cryptic species aren’t easy to tell apart from others by appearance alone, so the newfound ability to identify pangolin species by testing scales is a boon for conservation scientists. “Often a rare species will be mistaken for a more common one,” Wilder said. “With advancing DNA technologies, we are getting better at identifying cryptic species.”

That means the recent revelation could just be the start. “We also expect to find other pangolin species,” Hu said.

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