Scientists found Zenkerella, the world’s most mysterious mammal

The specimen sat in alcohol at the bottom of an opaque plastic container. Its luxuriant black fur was dark and matted, its characteristic tail curled. David Fernandez peered at the odd-looking critter, which he'd spent the better part of the past year trying to track down, and hoped it was the real thing.

Fernandez had worked on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea for 14 years, but he'd never seen one of these animals in its entirety before. No scientist ever had.

He lifted the specimen out of its container and snapped a photo with his phone. Then he texted the image to his colleague Erik Seiffert, one of the few people in the world who would recognize the creature.

Seiffert immediately texted back: That's Zenkerella.

"I think he was even more excited than I was," Fernandez recalled. "It was amazing, the first entire specimen available for us, and for science basically."

Zenkerella insignis, the critter caught on Bioko, is one of the world's most ancient and mysterious mammals. Until now, it was known only by its fossils and 11 scattered specimens, many of which had been languishing in natural history collections for over 100 years. Researchers who were interested in the species (and there aren't many) had little to go on aside from a hind limb here, a few teeth there. No scientist in history has ever seen it alive.

But, in a study published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, Fernandez, Seiffert and their colleagues describe the capture of three freshly killed Z. insignis specimens. The discovery means that, for the first time, scientists were able to examine the genome of one of the bizarre mammals, and finally figure out where Zenkerella fits in our evolutionary family tree.

[New Yorkers don't know their rats well enough. One 'rodentologist' wants to change that.]

Members of the Zenkerella genus are creatures of another world, "living fossils" that have evolved very little over the past 49 million years. For context, they're only about 15 million years younger than the dinosaurs, and some 35 million years older than the oldest great apes. When they first arose, Australia was still connected to Antarctica, and the Himalayas didn't even exist yet.

Tom Lori Published by Tom Lori

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