Gotta catch the Zenkerella: scientists on hunt for world's most mysterious squirrel
The second male specimen of Zenkerella insignis was found near the village of Ureca on Bioko, an island off the west coast of Africa (Photo credit: Steven Heritage)
Misha Gajewski, Special to CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, August 16, 2016 5:10PM EDT
Never seen or caught alive, the Zenkerella is an elusive, ancient, scaly-tailed squirrel that might be the “ultimate Pokémon,” according to researchers.
But thanks to the recent discovery of three newly-dead specimens, biologists can start to piece together how the species has evolved over the last 49 million years.
Zenkerella insignis is a mysterious rodent from central Africa, and is among the least studied of all living mammals.
Scientists know almost nothing about the rodent.
“We are only just starting to work on basic descriptions of Zenkerella's anatomy,” said Erik Seiffert, senior author.
In fact, the last time scientists heard about a Zenkerella in the wild was two decades ago and before now there were only 11 Zenkerella fossils held in museums around the world.
But for the first time, scientists were able to use these new whole-body specimens, caught by local hunters in their ground traps on Bioko Island off the west coast of Africa, to sample the Zenkerella’s DNA.
Their results, published today in the journal PeerJ, had some surprising results.
Comparing the scaly-tailed squirrels' DNA with a large sample of other rodents in an online database called GenBank, which includes all rodent suborders and families, the researchers found Zenkerella is actually a very distant cousin of two glidding squirrels that were thought to be its closer relative.
Which means, Zenkerella actually belong to the Zenkerellidae family, researchers said. All three cousins are part of the superfamily of Anomaluroidea, due in part to the common feature of scales on the bottom of their tails that reportedly provide support and traction for tree climbing.
Of the about 5,400 mammal species alive today, only Zenkerella insignis and five others are the only surviving members of “ancient lineages” and it is considered a "living fossil" due to the lack of evolutionary changes.
This study adds to a growing body of evidence that extreme anatomical adaptations that evolved and helped some mammals perform tasks like gliding, flying or swimming aren’t always likely to be lost or reversed over the course of evolution.
Now a team of researchers on Bioko Island are trying to catch live footage of the “Pokémon” squirrel in its natural habitat, but Seiffret told CTVNews.ca: “no luck so far.”
So for now, the hunt continues for a living, breathing Zenkerella.