A new species of extinct Australian Pig-footed Bandicoots has been discovered. The species is very unique as it walked on two toes on its front legs and on one toe on its hind legs. For their tiny size, they were incredibly fast and they are also thought to be one of the smallest ever grazing mammals. Pig-footed Bandicoots have long ears, a long tail, and very small, weighing just 1.3 pounds and measuring around 10 inches long.
Researchers from the Natural History Museum in London and the Western Australian Museum discovered the new species while conducting studies on 29 specimens of the Pig-footed Bandicoot that were found in different museums around the world. While the scientists previously believed that all of the specimens were of the same species called Chaeropus ecaudatus, they were instead two separate species – the other one named Chaeropus yirratji. They studied the DNA from the specimens (taken by Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1946) by using traditional morphology, morphometrics, paleontology, and molecular phylogenetics.
“This study demonstrates the importance of museum collections. Using a combination of historical research, new techniques and museum specimens from around the world has allowed us to identify and learn more about this recently extinct species,” said senior curator Roberto Portela Miguez, adding, “While knowledge of this new species arrived too late to save it from extinction, hopefully the lesson learnt demonstrates the urgency and importance of supporting biodiversity research.”
In order to trace the origins of the two species, researchers used fossil records as well as reported accounts from the Aboriginals. It is believed that the Chaeropus yirratji lived in the sandy parts of central Australia, while the Chaeropus ecaudatus lived in the south peripheral locations of the arid zone in Australia. Other differences include the Chaeropus yirratji having a longer tail and bigger hind feet than the Chaeropus ecaudatus. They may have also had different grazing habits.
It was over 20 million years ago that the Chaeropus ecaudatus – which was an arid-adapted bandicoot – along with bilbies and other bandicoots, began to evolve. Then in the year 1838, the species was named after a specimen without a tail was discovered in the Murray River located in New South Wales.
The discovery of the Chaeropus yirratji is definitely exciting since very little information was known about the mammal. “Pig-footed Bandicoots were extinct by the 1950s; therefore there was very little chance for scientists to study the species. More so, there are only 29 specimens of Pig-footed Bandicoots in existence,” stated Dr. Kenny Travouillon who is the curator of mammalogy at the WA Museum.
A study on the new species was published earlier this month on Zootaxa and can be read here.