Yet more on Marc van Roosmalen’s new Amazonian mammals, first disclosed on his excellent website. Before proceeding, you will need to have read part I, part II and part III first. Here in part IV we get to the most important stuff and wrap things up. But before that, there are yet more new animals to look at. For me, they are the most exciting of these proposed new species: a new large anteater, and a new large cat…
Arboreal giant anteater
The new anteater is closely related to the strictly terrestrial Giant anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla (this species reaches c. 3 m in total length and may weigh over 50 kg: shown in image above), and is so closely related to it that Marc considers it a member of the same genus. It is smaller than the Giant anteater and has a similar bushy, non-prehensile tail, but the big deal is that it is arboreal, climbing with the use of hand and foot claws (and obviously not with a prehensile tail as is the case in the tamanduas and silky anteater). Its markings around the neck differ from those of the Giant anteater and more recall those of a tamandua.
A new aboreal Myrmecophaga species is fascinating from the point of view of anteater evolutionary history, because anteater phylogeny clearly shows that Myrmecophaga must have descended from arboreal ancestors (Gaudin & Branham 1998): there are four extant anteater species, and all are arboreal except the Giant anteater (there are several fossil anteaters [Palaeomyrmidon, Protamandua, Promyrmephagus and Neotamandua*, all from Miocene South America**] but I don’t think any are well known enough to determine their behaviour). If we now have a modern arboreal Myrmecophaga species, we can perhaps go as far as saying that terrestriality in anteaters is a very new thing: it apparently evolved within this one genus [image below shows tamandua].
* Eurotamandua from Eocene Germany is almost certainly not an anteater, nor closely related to anteaters (Gaudin & Branham 1998, Szalay & Schrenk 1998, Delsuc et al. 2001).
** Incidentally, the Giant anteater inhabited North American during the Pleistocene (Shaw & McDonald 1987).
Again, the discovery of a living xenarthran as big as the new anteater is an immense discovery: the most recently discovered extant xenarthran is the small sloth Bradypus pygmaeus, named in 2001 and endemic to Isla Escudo off Panama (Anderson & Handley 2001) [want to know more about sloths? Go here]. A few new anteater species were named in the 20th century (including Myrmecophaga centralis Lyon, 1906) but were later demoted to subspecies status… though in the case of M. centralis, Genoways & Timm (2003) noted that ‘there are so few specimens that a rigorous examination is not possible’ (p. 248). It is worth noting that – even in places where they are known to occur – forest-dwelling Giant anteaters are, judging from the low number of eyewitness accounts (Loughry & McDounough 1997, Emmons 1999, Voss et al. 2001), either uncommon and sparsely distributed, or (despite their size and striking appearance) cryptic and hard to spot, or both. Interestingly, this applies to many xenarthran species, so, on the one hand, the discovery of a new and poorly known xenarthran is perhaps not surprising [insert comment on mapinguari].
The onça-canguçú: a new big cat
Finally, we come to the big cat. It is informally dubbed the White-throated black jaguar, but is known to local people as the onça-canguçú. The proposed common name is perhaps misleading given that the animal we are talking about is apparently a valid new species belonging to the genus Panthera, and not a member of the species we call the Jaguar P. onca. It is entirely black expect for an irregularly shaped, white bib-like marking on the throat, is reportedly larger than the jaguar, and (in contrast to melanistic jaguars) rosettes cannot be seen in its coat. Marc has collected eyewitness accounts of the onça-canguçú, and from a community of caboclo people living near the Uira-Curupá River he learnt of a case where a 9-year-old girl was killed by a pair of these cats. On another occasion, two people at Nova Olinda claimed to capture a cub (again, black and with a white throat patch) that had remained on a bank while its parents were occupied swimming across a river. The cub later died but its skull was retained.
The name onça-canguçú means – in Tupi – something like ‘the jaguar that is bigger than all the other cats and hunts in pairs’. These qualities (exceptional size and a social hunting strategy) sound suspiciously like the sort of details given to semi-mythical animals the world over, but in this case we don’t just have the local myths, as Marc has been able to procure specimens. The skull of an adult was owned by caboclo people living at Tucunaré: this cat had been shot some years earlier by a man who had since died and, while his possessions had been discarded into the forest, the unusual skull had been kept. As you can see from the adjacent photo, it possesses exceptionally long canines (sorry for poor focus). The black skin it is lying on is the skin of the same animal. We require high-quality artistic reconstructions of this cat by the way.
Some of you might be wondering if this cat is anything to do with the cryptic big cats reported by Peter Hocking. The short answer is that it isn’t. For the longer answer, you might be pleased to hear that I am publishing a post on Hocking’s alleged new cats after this one.
My primary aim in writing these blog articles has been to bring attention to Marc’s research. Alas, despite the international coverage that his research and discoveries have received, and despite his good standing in the scientific community and respectable list of impressive scientific publications (remember that pdfs are available on his website), all is not well. In March 2003 Marc was sacked from his position as senior scientist at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus and has since had extreme difficulty in receiving funding. There is in fact a lot more to the story, but it is highly political and I’m not sure how much I should disclose. Given the many new taxa he has discovered and studied, this is tragic, especially given that many of these animals appear to be endangered and are at risk of becoming extinct before they receive official recognition. It is partly for this reason that Marc has decided to announce the new species via a website (much faster and with a bigger potential audience that publishing in the technical literature) [dwarf manatee shown in adjacent image].
What can we do to help? Funding is urgently required, so this is an appeal for help. Note that contact email addresses are on Marc’s site, and that some of the new taxa could – potentially – be named for benefactors. I am not aware if the names of the more charismatic of the new mammals (the tapir, the dolphin and the cat, for example) are up for grabs, but this is perhaps worth advertising. Marc also hopes to publish a book on his new data, and on the story of his work in Amazonia. I don’t know as many people in natural history publishing as I’d like to so, again, if anyone can help in any way, this would be an awesome opportunity to get involved in something huge.
Please note that the information I have disclosed here is Marc’s intellectual property and it is not my aim to take credit for it. What you’ve read in these several blog articles has been produced in co-operation with Marc, and with his permission (he kindly supplied virtually all of the images). I am currently trying to sell popular articles on these new animals to various magazines (recall that I’ve worked in the past as a popular and semi-technical science writer). Any money I make from such is going to Marc, and I would ask that other writers keep this in mind [image below shows new Dasyprocta species].
As I hope I’ve made clear from these several articles, I can state for a fact that ‘new species status’ will not be universally accepted for all of the many new mammals we’ve been looking at. Others – such as the anteater and the big cat – are less ambiguous and cannot be anything other than highly significant new taxa. Regardless, it is clear that we are talking here about one of the most remarkable single contributions to the diversity of living mammals ever made by a single person, and the value of this new assemblage is difficult to stress. The idea that a handful, let alone a substantial number, of large new mammals might remain undocumented was perhaps unthinkable. Not any more.
Refs – –
Anderson, R. P. & Handley, C. O. 2001. A new species of three-toed sloth (Mammalia: Xenarthra) from Panamá, with a review of the genus Bradypus. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 114, 1-33.
Delsuc, F., Catzeflis, F. M., Stanhope, M. J. & Douzery, E. J. P. 2001. The evolution of armadillos, anteaters and sloths depicted by nuclear and mitochondrial phylogenies: implications for the status of the enigmatic fossil Eurotamandua. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 268, 1605-1615.
Emmons, L. H. 1999. Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide (Second Edition). University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.
Gaudin, T. J. & Branham, D. G. 1998. The phylogeny of the Myrmecophagidae (Mammalia, Xenarthra, Vermilingua) and the relationship of Eurotamandua to the Vermilingua. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 5, 237-265.
Genoways, H. H. & Timm, R. M. 2003. The xenarthrans of Nicaragua. Journal of Neotropical Mammalogy 10, 231-253.
Loughry, W. J. & McDounough, C. M. 1997. Survey of the xenarthrans inhabiting Poço das Antas Biological Reserve. Edentata 3, 5-7.
Shaw, C. A. & McDonald, H. G. 1987. First record of giant anteater (Xenarthra, Myrmecophagidae) in North America. Science 236, 186-188.
Szalay, F. S. & Schrenk, F. 1998. The Middle Eocene Eurotamandua and a Darwinian phylogenetic analysis of ‘edentates’. Kaupia 7, 97-186.
Voss, R. S., Lunde, D. P. & Simmons, N. B. 2001. The mammals of Paracou, French Guiana: a Neotropical lowland rainforest fauna. Part 2. Nonvolant species. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 263, 1-236.