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SMSG research wins a silver BIAZA award

The annual British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) awards celebrate the achievements of zoo associations in fields such as Education, Conservation and Research. This year, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has received a silver BIAZA award for research exploring global hotspots of, and research priorities for, the world’s Rodentia and Eulipotyphla. The project titled Scaling up small-mammal conservation: setting global priorities for understudied and overlooked species, was led by the Small Mammal Specialist Group (SMSG) with partners at Durrell – who host the SMSG Co-Chair and Programme Officer roles – as well as Texas A&M University, the Zoological Society of London and Re:wild. 

Small mammals exhibit remarkable functional, morphological and phylogenetic diversity. They include some of the world’s most primitive mammal taxa and can be found in virtually every terrestrial ecosystem. Yet, despite this, they are frequently overlooked in conservation science: research confirms that the poorly studied and largely ignored mammal species are those present in countries with limited scientific capacity, those that have been described only recently, or those that are small in size.

The SMSG’s award-winning project has therefore been an important step forward for the small mammal field. Using information gathered from the IUCN Red List, the aim of this project was to identify small mammal hotspots across the globe where conservation actions could have the greatest impact. The work focuses on the orders Eulipotyphla (e.g. hedgehogs, shrews, moles and solenodons) and Rodentia (e.g. rats, mice, squirrels, beavers and porcupines) which, together, make up nearly half of all living mammal species.  

Project outcomes 

In total, 76 of 454 known eulipotyphlan species and 324 of 2,231 known rodent species are classified as globally threatened on the IUCN Red List. By analysing the distribution and richness of these groups, multiple hotspots were identified: for eulipotyphlans, three regions (Sri Lanka, Western Ghats and Cameroonian Highlands) were found to contain disproportionately more at-risk species than expected. For rodents, six regions (in Mexico, Cameroonian Highlands, Southwestern Ghats, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia) are inhabited by disproportionately more at-risk species than would be expected.  

The researchers further reported that much of the globe’s small mammal diversity does not fall within protected areas. Protected areas are considered “the single most important conservation tool yet are very rarely set up with small mammals in mind. In fact, five eulipotyphlans and 44 rodents were found to occur in regions completely outside of any protected site. 

The study additionally highlighted regions with the highest numbers of ‘data deficient’ small mammals, i.e. species for which insufficient population or distribution information is available to make a Red List assessment. These areas – within Central and South America – require urgent research attention.  

Moving forward, the SMSG have used these results to inform action on the ground. The SMSG recently hosted a small mammal workshop in one of the identified priority regions, Mexico, with plans to replicate this in more key regions in the future. Such workshops bring together experts from government, academia, NGOs and other stakeholders, facilitating the development of prioritisation methods and species action plans. 

The recognition of this work in the BIAZA annual awards is a great achievement for the SMSG and shines a light on the group’s contributions to raising the profile of, researching and conserving small mammals – congratulations to everyone involved! 

You can read the full research paper here.

Author: Abi Gazzard (SMSG Programme Officer)

The Malagasy giant jumping rat is uplisted to Critically Endangered

The Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat – endemic to Madagascar – has been under pressure from habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation for years. Now, in the latest IUCN Red List update, this species has been moved to a higher threat category, from Endangered to Critically Endangered.

The Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat is the only living species in the ‘jumping rat’ genus Hypogeomys. As its name suggests, this forest-dwelling rodent has an impressive jumping ability. Its disproportionately large back feet help it to spring almost one metre into the air when evading predators. Such rabbit-like quirks of the jumping rat can also be seen in its nesting behaviour; during the day, it rests in an underground burrow complex. At night, it becomes active to forage for fallen fruit, leaves and seeds. The burrows of the Malagasy giant jumping rat are relatively high maintenance with entrances that are excavated and re-sealed every time a rat leaves and returns. Rather unusually, this rodent lives in its burrows in social monogamy: a male and female pair will remain together until one mate dies. 

Today, this unique species is found in only two isolated fragments of the Menabe region on the west coast of Madagascar, occupying a total area of less than 200km2. Fossil evidence indicates that a millennium ago the range of the Malagasy giant jumping rat would have extended much further south. 

Substantial habitat loss across this species’ historical range has been the result of climate-related aridification as well as human activities. Slash and burn agriculture, logging, charcoal production and illegal maize and peanut production have all contributed to unprecedented rates of deforestation in the now protected Menabe Antimena area: by 2014, approximately 4,000 hectares of forest was being lost per year. 

Habitat loss is not the only threat the giant jumping rat faces. It may be susceptible to hantaviruses recently detected in other rodents in Madagascar, as well as the negative impacts of feral cats and dogs which pose a risk as predators as well as carriers of disease. 

These challenges have driven a severe and ongoing drop in numbers of the giant jumping rat. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust undertook urgent survey work in the field in 2019 (even capturing rare footage of the rodents) and, based on the results of such surveys, the population was estimated to have declined by 88% between the years 2007-2019. In the northern fragment of its range, this decline reached 92% over the same period. Approximately just 5,000 individuals remain and the alarming reduction in numbers is what qualifies the Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat for Critically Endangered status. 

Can the Malagasy giant jumping rat bounce back from the brink of extinction? 

This rodent has a slow reproductive strategy. Only one or two young are produced per litter and sexual maturity of females is likely not reached until after two years. Its low reproductive output in combination with rapid habitat destruction and other fast-acting threats highlights the urgency of conservation efforts for this species. 

In captivity, conservation action for the giant jumping rat has been ongoing since the 1990s when Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust established the first ‘safety net’ population in Jersey Zoo. In the wild, the forest in which the jumping rat resides was granted statutory protection in 2006, though this has not alleviated the significant threat of illegal deforestation. 

There is now a need to focus efforts on stricter habitat protection measures, investigate the potential pathogens threatening this species, control feral dogs and cats and, ideally, establish a comprehensive action plan for saving the species. Without any intensive conservation intervention or habitat security, the Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat could disappear forever. 

Author: Abi Gazzard (SMSG Programme Officer)

 

Abi Gazzard joins the SMSG team!

The IUCN SSC Small Mammal Specialist Group is delighted to welcome Abi as the new SMSG Programme Officer. Abi joined the team in May 2022 and will be based at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Her role will involve working alongside the team to deliver Red List assessments and other key activities. Abi’s interest in small mammals grew from her MSc project, in which she conducted an occupancy study of the West European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) using footprint tracking tunnels in the UK. She then went on to complete a PhD at the University of Reading in 2022 again focusing on West European hedgehogs, but specifically in urban areas. Her research incorporated a range of methodological approaches, such as radio tracking and citizen science surveys, to study conservation actions and hedgehog activity primarily in residential gardens. Beyond hedgehogs, Abi has previously worked on projects with wildlife researchers in Malaysia and Europe. She hopes to continue expanding her knowledge of, and contributing to the conservation of, Eulipotyphlans and other small mammals.

Welcome to the team Abi!

My internship experience: Erika Lau

My six month internship at Durrell Wildlife Trust and the IUCN SSC Small Mammal Specialist Group has been an exciting and fulfilling adventure. Despite having spent the majority of my time working remotely, the distance felt much shorter with a team that made me feel very much welcomed. I looked forward to our Durrell weekly Monday catch up sessions, always getting inspired by the exciting fieldwork my other colleagues have planned. Coming directly into the internship from my academic studies, this internship was great exposure to the working world of conservation. As my tasks were wide-ranged, I was able to experience what it was like to work in multiple dimensions of conservation and decide whether I enjoyed it. I not only acquired more knowledge of small mammals and their ecology, but I also further sharpened my research and writing abilities. From writing my first press release for the conservation status change of the Pyrenean Desman, to amending Red List accounts on the water vole and Sinharaja shrew, to submitting an article on the Southeast Asian rodent meat trade for publication, these tasks honed my ability to be an independent researcher. One of the perks of working in a reputable organisation such as this one is the connections I have made, especially with TRAFFIC and Wildlife Conservation Society. These connections will no doubt be useful in the future as I continue my journey as a conservation scientist. Finally, I would like to personally thank my supervisor, Ros, for her guidance and support throughout my internship, and for overall making my experience more pleasant and enjoyable. 

The author

Erika Lau

Erika joined the team on a 6 month internship in late 2021 where she supported the SMSG Key Species programme. Erika is a recent graduate from Imperial College London, where she completed an MRes in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation.

The search for lost species continues…

The Togo Mouse and the Dwarf Hutia join the list of most wanted lost species

In 2017, Re:wild began a global mission to locate and protect 25 of the most wanted lost species, and since then the team has rediscovered 8 of the species scientists had feared to be globally extinct in the wild. The Togo Mouse from West Africa, and the Dwarf Hutia from Cuba now join an additional 6 species added to the new Re:wild top 25 most wanted lost species list. This rebooted Search for Lost Species was launched this month in collaboration with Tyler Thrasher, an extremely talented artist and conservationist.

The Togo Mouse (Leimacomys buettneri) was last seen in 1890 when it was first collected about 20 km east of Kyabobo Range National Park (KRNP) near the border between Ghana and Togo. Until now, there has been limited effort to locate the species using suitable trapping methodologies, but staff from KRNP believe they know the species and refer to it locally as “Yefuli”, thus hope remains that the species may have survived within the forests of West Africa.   

The Dwarf Hutia (Mesocapromys nanus) is a guinea pig-like rodent from Cuba, last collected in 1951. They are believed to build small platforms with holes as refuges in the dry islets and forest outcrops in the Zapata Swamp. Possible evidence of a nest and some suspicious scat was located in 1978, but continued efforts in this largely inaccessible swampy region are needed to confirm the status of the species.

These species join the Ilin Island Cloudrunner, another small mammal on the original top 25 most wanted list. This quest for lost species continues to inspire hope for the rediscovery of these lesser-known and often overlooked species.

Pyrenean Desman is now Endangered

Galemys pyrenaicus

Author: Erika Lau

The latest IUCN Red List update shows that the Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus) has been pushed to a higher threat category. Newly listed as Endangered, the species is experiencing continuous range contractions across its geographic distribution.

The desman is restricted to Andorra, northern and central Spain, northern Portugal, and French Pyrenees. In Spain, the species has been observed to contract its range in the Central System. Recent range declines of more than 50% and 60% have also been documented in Northern Portugal and in the French Pyrenees, respectively.

This decline is driven by a combination of factors. The species prefer fast-flowing, mountainous rivers that are threatened by ongoing anthropogenic activities, including construction of hydroelectric plants, dams and reservoirs, which besides altering the river habitat also cause the isolation of river networks, in turn fragmenting desman populations, water pollution, water extraction for agriculture, and public works on river banks. Additional threats to the species include invasive species, such as the North American mink (Neovison vison) and the red swamp (Procambarus clarkii) and the signal (Pacifastacus leniusculus) crayfish, climate change, and secondarily direct persecution from fisherman.

These observed range contractions and the persisting threats call for an increased need for conservation. Habitat restoration and appropriate management of watercourses, along with improved knowledge of the species, have been proposed as important conservation actions. In particular, the removal of dams and other fluvial barriers to free-up rivers is expected to be highly beneficial to the species. Action plans have been developed for France and Portugal, although they require an update. Furthermore, LIFE projects have also been dedicated to the species in France and Spain but are being required in Portugal. Research on the potential negative impacts of invasive species should also be undertaken.

Click here for the full Galemys pyrenaicus assessment.

Photos: Lorenzo Quaglietta

Lorenzo is the SMSG’s newest member. Welcome to the team Lorenzo!

Saving the Cuban Solenodon

Our team are working in Cuba to learn more about the globally endangered and evolutionarily distinct Cuban Solenodon. Threatened by habitat loss and introduced predators, we will harness the expertise of local rural communities by producing a written plan for the conservation of the species.

BACKGROUND

The Cuban solenodon (Atopogale cubana), known locally as the ‘almiquí’, is one of the most evolutionarily unique species on the planet. Along with the Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), they are the only surviving members of a mammalian lineage that can be traced back virtually unchanged to the Cretaceous period (145 to 66 million years ago). Recent estimates suggest that the group’s nearest closest relatives are the true shrews (Eulipotyphla).

Nocturnal and weighing about 1kg, they are difficult to study and have been declared extinct on numerous occasions. Recent discoveries of living specimens have given hope to the continued survival of the almiqui. However, systematic studies are needed to determine an understanding of their current population dynamics, natural history and ecology as well as the threats they may face in an ever-changing world.

Cuban solenodons along with the Desmarest’s hutia (Capromys pilorides), are two out of 13 remaining endemic land mammals of the Caribbean. Solenodons are approximately the size of a football and despite having the ability to climb, are mainly ground dwelling. They have a rougher and darker coat differing from their Hispaniolan cousins. A long, flexible snout with a supporting bone allows them to forage for invertebrate prey, although they lack the ball and socket joint which is characteristic of the Hispaniolan solenodon. One of the species’ unique traits includes their venomous saliva which is injected into prey through specially modified teeth. The name “solenodon” originates from the Greek word for “grooved teeth”.

They can run and climb quickly, however, have a clumsy gait which leaves them vulnerable to introduced predators such as feral dogs. Predation by introduced predators, as well as habitat loss, are the two main threats to the species. Due to a lack of systematic scientific research, the extent of these threats remains unknown hindering vital conservation action.

Studying the almiquí presents some unique challenges that our partnership hopes to overcome. This species may still be found in the pristine mountains of the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. However, these areas are located at an altitude of 740 m above sea level and are extremely difficult to access. Our research team will need to carry everything they require for at least 20-30 days in the field, using pack animals since these areas are only accessible by foot. The team of researchers working to save this unique species not only have to face the difficulty of traversing the inaccessible terrain, they will also have to deal with limited resources including lab access to run samples which is only available in the capital, Havana.

PLANNED RESEARCH AND OUTCOMES

We plan to conduct a series of field surveys across the species’ range in the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. The knowledge of local rural communities will be used to identify and increase our understanding of the threats facing almiquí throughout its last remaining stronghold.

By the end of our first year, we aim to test the feasibility of detecting the almiquí using different field methods including camera trapping, indirect field signs and the use of scent dogs. From this point we will decide our approach to studying the almiquí. Deciding on the most appropriate sampling techniques and survey design, we aim to map the distribution of the species throughout the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. Finally, we will conduct a pilot study sampling across the suspected species’ range detecting almiquí presence or absence.

By the end of our third year, we aim to create a written plan for Cuban solenodon conservation by consolidating the findings of our research efforts from our first year. Next, we will prepare and pilot local ecological knowledge surveys, with the help from local communities, we will survey in at least three villages within or close to the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park to better understand the threats towards this species.

WHO ARE OUR PARTNERS?

Through a partnership with the IUCN Small Mammal Specialist Group, there are opportunities for collaborations with local biologists in Cuba. In Humboldt NP, Norvis Hernández from the Ministry of Sciences, Technology and Environment in Cuba will lead the fieldwork and has considerable expertise in the natural history of the study region. We are also partnering with Zoo New England, who have adopted the Cuban Solenodon Conservation Project as one of its new Conservation Partnerships, providing expertise and support for our fieldwork activities.

The SMSG core team have a wealth of experience working in the Caribbean, particularly on the sister species found on the island of Hispaniola. The Last Survivors project ran for several years researching the two remaining endemic non-flying mammals in neighbouring Haiti and the Dominican Republic. During the project activities ranged from developing survey methodology, understanding the genetic status and health of the populations, undertaking Local Ecological Knowledge surveys, all of which can be developed to study the Cuban species.

The author

Connor Panter

Connor joined the team on a 3 month internship in mid-2021 where he supported the SMSG Key Species programme. Connor is currently studying for a PhD in Environmental Geography at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Namdapha Flying Squirrel Update

Thanks to the generosity of your donations, we’re moving closer to achieving our aims and getting the search for the elusive Namdapha Flying Squirrel underway!

Additional funding secured

In the months since the crowdfunding campaign ended, we’ve been working hard to secure further funding to give us the best possible chance of a successful expedition. As a result of this, we’re delighted to share the news that we have been awarded an additional $5000 from the Chicago Zoological Society through their CBOT Endangered Species Fund. This money, combined with what we have raised thus far, will ensure that our field team have all the necessary equipment and can make use of the full survey window that exists within Namdapha National Park each year.

Welcome to the team Tajum

Further to this, we’ve been liaising with our partners within the National Park and are delighted to welcome Tajum Yomcha to our team. Tajum is the research officer at Namdapha National Park and his expertise and knowledge of the region will no doubt help us and complements the skills we already have within our team. We’re still on target with our original timeline, with an estimated start date for the expedition hopefully taking place in October or November this year.

Namdapha Flying Squirrel in the news

As well as the additional funding and capacity within the team, we’ve been trying to keep the public awareness of the project (which began with this crowdfunding campaign) going. As such, we’ve had a few new media pieces out, including this in the Indian express.

Small mammals are often underrepresented in conservation discussions and in terms of media attention, so keeping this project in the public eye, we hope, is a way of ensuring that threatened small mammal species such as the Namdapha Flying Squirrel, are not forgotten about. 

 

The author

Tom Dando

Tom Dando currently works as SMSG’s Programme Assistant, focusing primarily on fundraising for the Key Species programme of work.