Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Scaly-tailed squirrel described as the ‘ultimate Pokémon’

AUGUST 16, 2016

by Chuck Bednar

While millions of mobile gamers are obsessed with catching elusive creatures with the popular “Pokémon Go” app, biologists at the University of Southern California (USC) are working hard to track down an elusive, real-life creature that has never been spotted live by researchers.

Known as a Zenkerella, this hard-to-find animal is a mysterious scaly-tailed squirrel that lives in central Africa and which was dubbed “the ultimate Pokémon” by Erik Seiffert, a professor of cell and neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, in a Tuesday press release – and for a very good reason, too, as there had been no reports of it living in the wild for 20 years!

In fact, not even a dozen Zenkerella specimens could be found in museums around the world, the university said – that is, until Seiffert and his colleagues recently discovered three recently killed specimens of the elusive rodent that not only raises that amount to 14 but could also provide new insight into how this long-lived creature has evolved over the past 49 million years.

“Zenkerella could be seen as the ultimate Pokémon that scientists have still not been able to find or catch alive,” the USC professor, whose research was published in the August 16 edition of the journal PeerJ, explained. “After all, it probably only shows up in the middle of the night, deep in the jungles of central Africa, and might spend most of its time way up in tall trees where it would be particularly hard to see.”

Creature is one of just six surviving species alive during the Eocene epoch
Seiffert’s team used the newly-discovered specimens to sample Zenkerella's DNA for the first time, collecting cells from cheek swabs then comparing its genetic make-up with other rodents using an online database. Much to their surprise, they discovered that Zenkerella was a distant relative to two different scaly-tailed squirrels that had webbing between their limbs.

While this webbing made it possible for Zenkerella’s cousins to glide from one tree to another, the creature itself was unable to perform such feats, the study authors said. Nonetheless, it still belongs as part of the newly-formed Zenkerellidae family, which is part of the Anomaluroidea superfamily, because all three types of squirrels possess scales on the bottom of their tails that provided additional support and traction when they attempted to climb trees.

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