New Small Mammals Discovered in Sulawesi

A survey of small mammals from a forest site on the tropical island of Sulawesi, Indonesia (pictured at left) has turned up between two and four shrew species believed to be new to science.  Although more DNA testing is needed to determine exactly how many separate species the new shrews constitute, the discovery is a reminder of how much still remains to be learned about wildlife in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario and the Museum of Zoology in Bogor, Indonesia conducted a week-long study of small mammals on Sulawesi’s Mt. Tompotika in April of this year.  Recently released preliminary results of the study document finding four rat species previously found in other parts of Sulawesi, as well as between two and four shrews.

One of the shrews is currently classified as belonging to a known species, but further research might show the Mt. Tompotika variety to be a separate species.  The others are all new to science, and are probably found only on Sulawesi.

All of the shrews found in the Mt. Tompotika survey belong to a group known as white-toothed shrews, an assemblage of more than 160 small mammals scattered over much of Europe, Asia, and Africa.  While most white-toothed shrews live on the ground, some species frequently climb into trees.  Like other shrews they are predators, feeding mainly on insects and other invertebrates.

Because of their small size, shrews are more easily overlooked than many mammals by scientific surveys.  The discovery of at least two, and possibly up to four new species on Mt. Tompotika shows the extent to which knowledge about these creatures remains incomplete.  It is likely many more shrew species remain undiscovered, especially in tropical sites like Tompotika.

“Tompotika is a remarkably rich and distinctive place for biodiversity,” said a newsletter publication of the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation, referring to the mountain site where the shrews were found.  The conservation organization reports that this single tropical site is now known to be home to at least nine animal species that occur nowhere else in the world.  “As the area gets more scientific attention,” the Alliance says, “that number is sure to rise.”

Looking at the entire island of Sulawesi, where Tompotika is located, an even more pronounced pattern of unique and rare species emerges.  Over 60% of the mammals on Sulawesi are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.  These range from the large babirusa—a forest-dwelling pig with spectacular tusks—to tiny and secretive mammals like the newly discovered shrews.

Yet as with most other Indonesian islands, biodiversity on Sulawesi is under severe threat.  Only about 20% of Sulawesi’s original forest cover remains, with much of the rest having succumbed to logging, mining, and agricultural development.  This means the last intact sites, like Mt. Tompotika, are especially important from a conservation standpoint.

Despite the urgency of preserving Sulawesi’s last stands of tropical forest, the island has received less attention from researchers and conservationists than nearby larger Indonesian islands.  So far the bulk of international attention to conservation in Indonesia has focused on Borneo and Sumatra—the two largest islands in the archipelago nation, which are home to highly charismatic animals like the tiger and the orangutan.

As researchers learn more about the unique plants and animals of Sulawesi, more international conservation groups may turn their attention to this extraordinary and imperiled island.  Increased efforts to protect the forests of Sulawesi will help ensure a future for hundreds of species found nowhere else, including the newly discovered shrews that can now be added to the island’s list of endemic animal life.

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