UMNH curator helps discover new mouse species

A bright-orange mouse the size of an adult human hand may lend hope to conservationists worldwide.

A team of American and Filipino researchers stumbled upon the new species of mouse in the lowland forests of Luzon island in the Philippines. Much of the original forest had been logged, and the local farmers chose to replant the area in order to protect the watershed to help their crops of rice and vegetables.

Research team co-leader Eric Rickart, curator of vertebrates at the Utah Museum of Natural History, understood that the farmers who were actively conserving the forest were doing so to protect their farms. He said that this was “an optimistic find in terms of conservation.

“[This find] serves as an argument for why lowland forests need to be protected. This little mouse that no one suspected was there shows us that it’s not too late,” Rickart said.

The researchers were “particularly surprised” to find the mouse where they did, he said.

“This animal was not found in a pristine forest or an isolated mountain top, but in a degraded, secondary habitat, where it likely thrives,” he said. “In 100 years, no one has discovered this mouse because of its unusual location.”

As well as being in an unexpected location, it was an unusual find because of its uniqueness, Rickart said.

The animal population in the Philippines is richly biodiverse, but for rodent populations, all currently known species likely came from four or five original species that could fly or swim to the isolated archipelago.

“We’ve been studying in the Philippines for two decades because it is a natural laboratory, where we can clearly see patterns of evolution and speciation,” Rickart said.

While the researchers have found new species in the past, they were able to trace them back to one of the original ancestors. This is the first time the scientists believe they have found a new species and genus, which means that there may be more of the original settlers than previously thought.

“From the biodiversity standpoint, this means there is another interesting group of animals to study out there,” he said, adding that he and his co-leader, Lawrence Heaney, curator of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago, hope to return to the Philippines next spring. While they are in the United States, team co-leader and Filipino biologist Danilo Balete will continue looking for the strong-jawed, large-skulled, 7-inch mouse in the tree tops of the lowland forest.

While researchers don’t know much about the mouse, Rickart speculates that the mouse could bury seeds in the forest, much like a squirrel, which could also lead to forest regeneration.

“While fruit-eating bats and birds also fulfill this role, this mouse could play a key dispersal role in the forests,” he said.

Such hypotheses won’t be proven until the researchers figure out where the mouse fits in the evolutionary chain, and to what other species it is related.

“It is probably similar to climbing mice species in Borneo or Indochina,” he said.

For further examination, the specimen is currently at the Field Museum, where Heaney is studying it. He will clean and analyze the skull and compare it to other rodents to figure out where it fits on the evolutionary tree. Rickart plans to travel there later this fall to analyze the findings as well.

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