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New species of giant flying squirrel brings hope to one of the world’s ‘most wanted’

  • Scientists have discovered a new species of giant flying squirrel in China belonging to one of the world’s rarest and most mysterious genera.
  • The first species in the genus, the Namdapha flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi), was described in 1981 and hasn’t been seen since.
  • A second species, the Laotian giant flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus laoensis), was described in 2013, but also from just a single specimen.
  • Researchers believe the conservation outlook for the new species, the Mount Gaoligong flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus gaoligongensis), is better than for its relatives, given its greater abundance in the wild and prospects for community and government involvement to protect it.

In 1981, a team of scientists led by zoologist Shyamrup Biswas discovered the Namdapha flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi) in the ironwood jungles of Arunachal Pradesh state, India. Little did they know, it was the last time they were ever going to see it. But in 2018, a spark of hope was lit when a Chinese expert discovered a new species in the same genus, identified as the Mount Gaoligong flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus gaoligongensis).

“When I discovered it, there was a feeling that dreams come true,” said Quan Li from the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ) and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, lead author of the new study published in the journal ZooKeys. “I felt that there are new conservation hopes for this rare genus.”

Prior to the new discovery, the Biswamoyopterus genus was comprised of only the Namdapha flying squirrel and its Laotian counterpart, Biswamoyopterus laoensis. Having not been seen for nearly 40 years, the former is listed as one of 25 “most wanted” in Global Wildlife Conservation’s (GWC) Search for Lost Species; the latter was only discovered in 2013 in a bushmeat market in Laos. With only a single specimen collected each, scientists regard these giant, flying squirrels as some of the rarest and most mysterious mammals in the world. Both species are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN due to habitat loss and hunting. Almost nothing is known about them, given their rarity and elusiveness.

The Mount Gaoligong flying squirrels are known to live in the low-altitude forests of Mount Gaoligong National Nature Reserve, often exposed to human agricultural activities and occasional poaching. Image by Wen-Qiang Hu.

The newly discovered species, too, is vulnerable to human agricultural activities and occasional poaching. Currently, Mount Gaoligong National Nature Reserve only covers middle and high altitudes, leaving unprotected the low-altitude forests where the new species lives.

It was a workshop on overlooked mammals in China’s border region with Southeast Asia that led to the new squirrel’s discovery, according to Li. After attending the workshop in Kunming, Li was driven to conduct more research on 1,250 square kilometers (483 square miles) of “blank area” in Yunnan, in southwestern China, between the habitats of the two known species in northeastern India and central Laos.

When he went back through KIZ’s collection of mammals, he found a long-neglected specimen. Delighted, Li thought he had found the “missing flying squirrel.”

The Namdapha flying squirrel was first spotted in 1981 by zoologist Shyamrup Biswas and his team, and has not been seen again since. Image by the Zoological Survey of India.

But when Li and his team received a high-quality image of the Namdapha flying squirrel and reviewed further studies on the Laotian species, it turned out the specimen they had was actually a completely new third species to the genus.

“We couldn’t have considered the Mount Gaoligong species for our most wanted list because until the recent news, nobody knew it existed!” said Lindsay Mayer, GWC’s director of media relations.

Li then went into the field, obtaining another specimen from poachers and viewing living animals in the wild. After careful study, scientists concluded that the Mount Gaoligong flying squirrel, initially identified as the “missing” Namdapha flying squirrel, as a different species from the other two, prominently in pelage color and skull and tooth morphology. The three species’ distribution is cut off by high mountains and deep river valleys: perfect conditions for each to evolve in isolation from the others.

“Discoveries like this are significant, as they expand our knowledge of the natural world and feed into our greater understanding of the places and systems in which the newly described species exist,” said Thomas Dando of the IUCN’s SSC Small Mammal Specialist Group and part of the team working to rediscover and protect the Namdapha flying squirrel. “In this specific case, these new records help fill in the vast expanse that previously existed between the Namdapha and Laotian members of this cryptic genus.”

He added, “This latest discovery almost provides more questions than answers about the true distribution of the three species within the genus.”

These arboreal herbivores play an important role in the ecosystem by spreading seeds. They also serve as important prey for owls, marbled cats and clouded leopards. Like employees at a workplace, every species contributes essential functions to the well-being of the environment.

“Developing the most effective conservation plans depends on us knowing that a species is still out there,” Mayer said. “We know so very little about so many lost species, so setting out to find them is the first step to protecting them.”

By understanding more about the distribution, population size, living habits and threats of this new species — in this case, through research funded by the Chinese government — scientists can provide more informed recommendations to policymakers and surrounding communities to save it from extinction and also list it as a legally protected species. Given the success of bird-watching tourism in promoting local bird conservation in Mount Gaoligong, squirrel tourism, too, could potentially be recommended.

“Local people are aware that biological resources can bring sustainable income, and law enforcement agencies have strengthened patrols, so poaching has gradually decreased,” Li said, calling it “good news for the new species.”

Having observed a few more live Mount Gaoligong flying squirrels, he said he believed its conservation status was looking “slightly optimistic” compared to that of its critically endangered and missing cousins.

Since the beginning of GWC’s Search for Lost Species, researchers have confirmed the rediscovery of at least three species: the Jackson’s Climbing Salamander (Bolitoglossa jacksoni), endemic to Guatemala; the Wallace’s Giant Bee, known only from the Indonesia’s North Maluku archipelago and spotted again earlier this year; and the Velvet Pitcher Plant, native to Indonesian Borneo.

The Namdapha flying squirrel is one of the 25 “most wanted” in Global Wildlife Conservation’s Search for Lost Species. This year, five to six rediscovered species will be replaced by additional lost species. Image by Alexis Rockman.

As scientists find missing species, Mayer said she believed their stories could “turn the doom-and-gloom extinction narrative on its head,” serving as “flagships for conservation, often spurring momentum to protect them, their habitat and all the wildlife that shares their habitat.”

Banner image: The Mount Gaoligong flying squirrel, or Biswamoyopterus gaoligongensis, was recently discovered last year in Yunnan, China, by Quan Li of the Kunming Institute of Zoology and his team. Image by Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden.

Li, Q., Li, X.-Y., Jackson, S. M., Li, F., Jiang, M., Zhao, W., … Jiang, X.-L. (2019) Discovery and description of a mysterious Asian flying squirrel (Rodentia, Sciuridae, Biswamoyopterus) from Mount Gaoligong, southwest China. ZooKeys, 864, 147–160. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.864.33678

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