Is a mammal a species

31.03.2021 10:00

New egg-laying mammal discovered in Australia

Dipl. Soz. Steven Seet Science communication
Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.

It is assumed that the world's biodiversity is still largely unexplored. However, researchers rarely discover new mammals. However, a scientific team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) has now discovered a new species of mammal in Australia. The discoverers gave it the scientific name Ovolepus paschii.

Today, non-invasive methods are standard procedures in modern biodiversity research. Where in the past explorers crawled through the bush with binoculars, camera traps and the genetic analysis of hair or faeces samples lying around in the landscape (so-called environmental DNA) provide information about hidden species today. Camera data and biological samples can then be conveniently analyzed and evaluated in laboratories and offices without the researchers having to be bitten by mosquitoes or the sun having to grill them.

A large data set from the Australian outback has now revealed a surprising sensation. The analysis of camera trap photos and so-called environmental DNA provided evidence of a new species of mammal.

“We don't yet know exactly what the animal looks like. Unfortunately we only have a blurry camera trap photo, which at least confirms its existence, ”says Prof. Fickel, geneticist at the Leibniz-IZW. “Our extensive genetic data archive enables us to precisely predict the characteristics of an animal based on the genetic material. In this way we were able to reconstruct what the animal must most likely look like. ”For the analysis, Fickel and his team examined the alleles on four marker genes. The NRE gene codes for the non-canonical reproduction enzyme. Since this protein was found in all egg-laying mammals, this proves beyond any doubt that this animal also lays eggs. This is confirmed by the allele on the TSO gene, which plays an essential role in the thick shell forming organ and is indispensable for the formation of the egg shell. The EHO gene codes for a protein that is involved in the ear height and ovar development metabolic pathway. The allele expression on this gene shows that the animal's ear length must be well over 15 cm. Finally, the geneticists analyzed the RF gene that produces the rutilofertil protein. This is a protein that gives the animal a reddish color and, in conjunction with the lime in the shells of the numerous eggs laid, enables a wide range of different colors.

In Australia, due to the remoteness of the continent, many bizarre creatures have developed, including the only egg-laying mammals in the world, the platypus and beaked hedgehog. Many species in Australia have developed in a comparable way to our European fauna in terms of their adaptations and colonize similar niches as they exist here. The beaked hedgehog, for example, is a creature with spiky body appendages and looks quite similar to the hedgehog, but as an egg-laying mammal it is an extremely distant relative of our native hedgehog. The tylazine, an Australian bagwolf that went extinct in the 1930s, occupied a similar ecological niche as Isegrim in this country. Even if the new discovery of a mammal is a scientific sensation, as the above examples show, it is in principle not surprising that an animal that looks similar to the European hare was discovered in Australia.

Due to its characteristics, the researchers gave their new discovery the scientific name Ovolepus paschii, which means “the Easter egg-laying hare”.

“European hares and wild rabbits brought with them by European immigrants have been hobbling through the Australian outback for a long time and sometimes cause enormous problems for the native flora and fauna. The visual similarity to these animal species may also be the reason why Ovolepus slipped through the camera traps for so long, ”said Prof. Fickel, commenting on the discovery. "We will take another closer look at our databases and are sure to discover more specimens."

From genetic analyzes it was also possible to reconstruct what the eggs of the newly discovered mammal look like. They are oval, approx. 3-4 cm in diameter and probably have dots in different bright colors, which also represent an excellent camouflage against different backgrounds.

Historical research suggests that explorers in Australia became aware of this mammal as early as the 17th century. Church documents from the village of Godithestre in England show that at Easter 1687 a letter reached a local family describing this miraculous mammal. The corresponding letter had been on its way for such an extremely long time that the family believed their relative had already been lost. It is believed that the family established the Easter egg hunt ritual to celebrate the wellbeing of their loved one. The practice spread so quickly that the village of its origin proudly renamed itself “Good Easter”.

The Leibniz-IZW is an internationally recognized research institute. It belongs to the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. and is a member of the Leibniz Association. The aim is to understand the adaptability of wild animals in the context of global change and to contribute to the preservation of healthy wild animal populations. To this end, the Leibniz-IZW researches the variety of life course strategies, the mechanisms of evolutionary adaptations and their limits - including wildlife diseases - as well as the interrelationships between wild animals, their environment and humans. For this purpose, the expertise from biology and veterinary medicine is used in an interdisciplinary approach to carry out basic and applied research - from the molecular to the landscape level - in close exchange with stakeholders and the public. In addition, the Leibniz-IZW provides unique and high-quality services for the scientific community.

The Leibniz-IZW wishes a Happy Easter and also that you can often laugh a lot during this strange time, because it has been proven to be good for the immune system.

Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW)
in the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.
Alfred-Kowalke-Str. 17, 10315 Berlin

Prof. Dr. Jörns Fickel
Head of Department Evolutionary Genetics
Tel. +49 (0) 30 5168314
[email protected]

Dr. Kathleen Röllig
Science transfer
Tel. +49 (0) 30 5168122
[email protected]

Steven Seet
Scientific communication
Tel. +49 (0) 30 5168125
e-mail: [email protected]

Scientific contact:

Prof. Dr. Jörns Fickel
Head of Department Evolutionary Genetics
Tel. +49 (0) 30 5168314
[email protected]

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