New Species of Extinct Pig-Footed Bandicoot Discovered
An international team of researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom has discovered a new species of pig-footed bandicoot which has been extinct for more than half a century.
The pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus) was unique, and unlike any other mammal due to its ability to walk on two toes on its front legs, and one toe on its hind legs.
“The pig-footed bandicoot was one of the most unique, and possibly one of the weirdest animals on the planet. No other mammal walked on two toes on its front legs and one toe on its hind legs,” said lead author Dr. Kenny Travouillon, curator of mammalogy at the Western Australian Museum.
“The animal was believed to be amongst the smallest grazing mammals that have ever lived and its speed, for its size, was legendary.”
The pig-footed bandicoot evolved along with bilbies and other bandicoots more than 20 million years ago and was found throughout central and south Australia and in Victoria.
The species was named and scientifically described in 1838 by the Irish naturalist William Ogilby.
“Aboriginal people knew about these animals for around 65,000 years before the marsupials were first recorded by Europeans in 1838,” Dr. Travouillon and colleagues said.
“Unfortunately it took just over 150 years from its discovery by Europeans for it to go extinct. The last bandicoots are thought to have vanished by the 1950s.”
“The rapid extinction of the pig-footed bandicoot means that it was never properly studied in its environment, so little is known about these extraordinary animals or their ecology and behavior.”
“To better understand these bizarre creatures, we reassessed all 29 modern pig-footed bandicoot remains that survive (including bones, taxidermy animals and wet specimens), as well as fossil and subfossil bones held in museums and universities around the world.”
By using a combination of traditional morphology, morphometrics, paleontology and molecular phylogenetics, the scientists discovered there were in fact two different species. DNA from specimens collected by Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1946 confirmed the existence of two species.
“Although very similar, the two species have some distinct differences,” Dr. Travouillon said.
“The newly-identified species, named Chaeropus yirratji, has fewer holes in its palate compared to Chaeropus ecaudatus and it has different shaped teeth, suggesting different diets.”
“Chaeropus yirratji also has much longer feet, meaning it would have been able to take longer strides and therefore move faster.”
“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,” said Roberto Portela Miguez, senior curator in charge of mammals at the Natural History Museum in London.
The team also used fossil records and Aboriginal oral accounts recorded in the 1980s to trace the two species’ distribution.
Chaeropus yirratji was thought to have lived in sandy environments in central Australia and Chaeropus ecaudatus lived in the southern peripheral areas of the arid zone of Australia. Both species were thought to inhabit areas of Western Australia.
“This research increases our understanding of past biodiversity and enhances our knowledge of the diversity of mammals. It also helps build a more comprehensive picture of the true impact we had and are still having on the natural world,” Miguez said.
“Every species matters because each species plays a part in the ecosystems they naturally occur and the extinction of one species could lead to the collapse of these complex systems.”
The research is published in the journal Zootaxa.
Kenny J. Travouillon et al. 2019. Hidden in plain sight: reassessment of the pig-footed bandicoot, Chaeropus ecaudatus (Peramelemorphia, Chaeropodidae), with a description of a new species from central Australia, and use of the fossil record to trace its past distribution. Zootaxa 4566 (1); doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.4566.1.1