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New marsupial discovered in Ecuador

Researchers working in Ecuador have identified a previously unknown species of shrew-opossum, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Mammalogy. Contrary to its mousey appearance, Caenolestes sangay, named after the national park where it was discovered, is actually a marsupial.

The team from Pacific Lutheran University set up more than 100 live traps over 15 nights on the eastern slopes of the Andes. In the course of their research they recovered five specimens of the new species, each measuring approximately 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) long. Previously, researchers had considered it to be a subspecies due to its similarities with other populations inhabiting the western slopes of the Andes. Upon further scrutiny, however, the young field workers noticed a difference in the shape of the animal’s head.

The newly discovered marsupialCaenolestes sangay) with its signature small ears and long snout.

The newly discovered marsupialCaenolestes sangay) with its signature small ears and long snout. Photo courtesy of Ojala-Barbour, et all.

“The most similar species lives in the western slopes of the Andes, so our first guess was that we found a geographical variant,” said Ojala-Barbour, a fellowship student leading the expedition. “We concluded, however, from the morphology of the skull and the DNA, that this was a different species.”

Worldwide, there are more than 260 species of marsupials, many of which live in Australasia. Other species of shrew-opossum are known to live in the cloud forests of the High Andes, including the slopes of Colombia and Venezuela. Typical habitat for these mammals consists of hollow logs and underground chambers accessible from the forest floor where they eat a diet of fruit and insects. Due to this hostile terrain, they are notoriously difficult to study and very little is known about their reproductive behavior. As this is secretive and remote habitat, there are likely to be more species of shrew-opossum that have yet to be discovered.

According to co-discoverer Miguel Pinto, “the Andes are still terra incognita; several plants and animals remain to be described and studied in detail.”


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