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Local Scientist Finds New Species - Without Leaving D.C.

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These squirrels are different colors, but the same species.
Sabri Ben-Achour
These squirrels are different colors, but the same species.

Past that giant elephant in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and the hordes of visitors, deep in the bowels of the museum, there are long white hallways full of white cabinets, under the white glow of fluorescent lights.

Kris Helgen starts opening them up. “This is where our division of mammal collections starts.”

Helgen, a curator of the mammal division for the Smithsonian, opens one of the cabinets and pulls out slats of stuffed platypuses. He points to sharp venomous glands at the Platypus ankle. “This is the only poisonous mammal,” he says.

He also has preserved bats, shrews, mice, voles, and squirrels. He has dead mammals for days. In fact, the Smithsonian has 600,000 specimens here, collected over 200 years.

“We’ve got skins, skulls and bones, a few things in jars,” says Helgen. And hidden among these shelves and in these cabinets are species that nobody even knew existed. He walks over to what looks like a brown furry hot dog.

“So this is a relative of the raccoon,” he says. “You can see this pelt. You can feel it if you want to.”

For a 100-year-old skin—it was collected in 1919 from the Andes—the fur is remarkably well preserved. It’s a rich, golden red auburn color, and very soft.

“This animal is only found in Andean rainforests—what we call cloud forests—high up in the elevational gradient on the Andes,” he says. “This is from Columbia and Equator, and we’re calling it the mountain alingo.”

It looks nothing like a raccoon, but whoever collected it, must have figured they looked similar enough. Turns out, there are two raccoon relatives that that live in the region.

“They’re very, very different,” says Helgen. “The closer you look at the fur color, the size, the skull, the teeth, you can tell them apart easily, but not if you just see them running through the trees."

When Helgen went down to South America, he found mountain alingos scampering around through the trees. They’re still there.

“Anytime I find something new in a collection, it’s a euphoric moment,” he says. “I have to explain that. You pull out something in a cabinet, and its something that may have been here 100 years, and maybe I’m the first person to really realize what’s going on here.”

Helgen has found 25 new species this way, But sometimes though, he’s too late.

“This is something that’s named Tropus coxae,” says Helgen. “This is a very large species of flying fox.” Also known as a giant bat—a giant furry black bat.

“These are bats that can have a wingspan of up to a meter long if you stretch them out,” he says. “Very, very large bats that are found on tropic islands around Asia, Australian region. So this bat, Tropus Cocksae was collected in… American, Western Samoa… in the 1838-1842 U.S. exploring expedition.” Helgen says as far as they know, the bat is now extinct.

Naming discoveries

Further down on a table, there are rows of virtually indistinguishable little gray bats, and jars of little shrews packed in alcohol like pickles, and trays of rats that at first glance look identical. Sometimes it takes DNA analysis to figure out whether a creature is really a different species.

“I think one of the ways to think about it is what do they look like to each other,” he says. “When I’m here as an observer in the museum, I have to only use my visual powers to try and tell these things apart. But for these rats, sight is not their most important sense. Hearing is very important, they may make different noises… and probably most important of all is sense of smell. For most mammals, that takes priority. So in their world, they probably think they have nothing in common, and look nothing like each other.”

Helgen’s search is all about the basic questions of biology—what is out there? Where is it? What are we losing?

“What the world around is is the sum total of all the life we see,” he says. “These are the basic questions that make our planet tick, and I want to know the answers.”

One perk of this work is that when Helgen does come across an organism that’s new to science, he gets to name it whatever he wants.

Usually he names them after mentors he’s had. Some new names adopt the name given to a creature by the indigenous peoples found where it lives. And sometimes, the creatures are named for people who have supported his work.

And with only a tiny fraction of the species in the Natural History Museum’s collection documented thus far, there’s a good chance there are all sorts of other animals—creatures that look like a platypus, or a mountain alingo, or maybe something even more unusual— just waiting to be discovered and named.


[Music: "Animal" by Miike Snow from Mike Snow Remixes]

Photos: New Species

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