Smithsonian Scientists Discover New Species of Hedgehogs Hiding in Plain Sight

Soft-furred hedgehog specimens deposited decades ago in the museum’s collection are new to science

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Hylomys dorsalis, one of the previous subspecies now elevated to new species, hails from the mountains of Northern Borneo. Quentin Martinez,, all rights reserved

February 2nd is usually a celebration of groundhogs and their supposed weather forecasting abilities. But this day is also special for another small mammal: the hedgehog. These little critters are found in the wild across Europe, Asia and Africa and come in both prickly and furry varieties. And on this year’s Hedgehog Day, there are even more hedgehogs to celebrate.

Researchers at the National Museum of Natural History recently identified five new species of gymnures, also known as soft-furred hedgehogs, from Southeast Asia. Three of these new species, which resemble shrews more than your typical hedgehog, were elevated from their previous subspecies level. But the other two species, Hylomys vorax and Hylomys macarong, are entirely new to science despite spending decades in museum collections.

“We were expecting that some of the subspecies would be given species level recognition,” said Arlo Hinckley, the lead author of a Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society paper describing the new hedgehog species and a postdoctoral researcher in the museum’s department of vertebrate zoology. “But the surprise was finding these two entirely new species that we didn’t expect.”

Arlo Hinckley, an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History, sampling soft-furred hedgehogs and other small mammals in the montane forests of Borneo, Malaysia. Daniel Hinckley

Broadly speaking, mammals are a well-studied group of animals. They’re charismatic, more accessible to researchers and generally more familiar to the public. However, “small, brown-ish things” aren’t usually given a lot of attention and don’t have as large of a body of research despite their remarkable diversity, according to Hinckley. While it’s pretty uncommon to discover new species of mammals given that we know so much about them already, one of the best bets for finding new mammal species is among these smaller, less colorful animals. And one of the best places to find them is in the drawers and cabinets of large museum collections, like those in the Smithsonian’s sprawling mammal collection.

“Proportionately, there’s less study into the things we call small mammals – rodents, bats, shrews – that you don’t often see,” said Melissa Hawkins, the museum’s curator of mammals. “There’s a lot more discoveries to reveal from these museum collections.”
The museum specimen that scientists studied to describe the new soft-furred hedgehog species Hylomys vorax. Katie Sayers, NMNH

The two new gymnure species, H. vorax and H. macarong, were identified in the collections of NMNH and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. The H. vorax specimen was collected in Indonesia 84 years ago while the H. macarong specimen was collected in Vietnam 62 years ago. In the decades since, the two hedgehog skins have sat in their respective drawers waiting for a scientist to take a closer look.

If they weren’t deposited in museum collections, these new species may never have been discovered. In their natural habitats, soft-furred hedgehogs scurry around the forest floor, where they’re easy to miss. Because of their cryptic nature, it’s difficult to collect enough animals to have a proper sample size for a comprehensive geographic study. Specimens in museum collections alleviate this problem.

The archival notes and labels attached to museum specimens are sometimes just as crucial as the skins themselves. Hinckley examined field notes from the mammalogist Frederick Ulmer, who originally collected the museum’s H. vorax specimens in 1939. These notes contained important ecological information about this species, such as a depiction of its habitat and the other species living there. Ulmer even described the animal’s “voracious” appetite, which served as the inspiration for its name.
The soft-furred hedgehog Hylomys dorsalis, a former subspecies that is now recognized as its own unique species, resides in the dense mountain forests of northern Borneo, Malaysia. Daniel Hinckley

Museum specimens can also provide an additional source of evidence: DNA. Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technologies, researchers are now able to extract genetic material from specimens collected decades ago, painting a more complete picture of the animal for research zoologists like Hinckley and Hawkins. According to Hawkins, many specimens in the museum’s mammal collection were obtained before scientists recognized DNA as the fundamental hereditary molecule and the foundation for the diversity of life on Earth. Now, those specimens’ genetic material could be the key to unlocking new species and other discoveries.

Just because extracting DNA from museum specimens is possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. The genetic material is often severely degraded, and much of the double-helix structure is broken down through UV light exposure and the passage of time. These samples are also highly contaminated from being passed around throughout the years and coming into contact with other sources of DNA, whether from the flesh-eating beetles that ate the animal’s tissue or from human hands picking up the study skin. Digging through these tangles of DNA to find tiny bits of original DNA requires a more complex approach than sequencing a newer sample.

“It’s really much more of a needle in a haystack approach as opposed to nice, fresh tissue where you can do one lab technique and get every marker you want,” Hawkins said. “We have to sequence these a lot deeper and do more target work to get the molecules of DNA we want.”

Melissa Hawkins examines specimens from the museum’s mammal collection. James Di Loreto, NMNH

According to Hinckley and Hawkins, the discovery of these new soft-furred hedgehog species highlights how important collections are to researchers studying taxonomy and piecing together the puzzle of the animal kingdom.

But the work doesn’t end when the study skins get put back in drawers and the species are named. Discovering new species means that there’s a whole new factor that has to be taken into account when thinking about wildlife and habitat conservation. For example, H. vorax’s range on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia is part of the highly endangered Leuser ecosystem, which faces a number of threats ranging from palm oil production to logging. Describing a new species in this region adds to its biodiversity, and can help inform decisions about conservation efforts.

“When you describe a species, I think it’s a bit like when a gallery gets a Picasso, or when a city discovers a new archaeological site,” Hinckley said. “In this case, it’s an endemic species that is the product of millions of years of evolution. Like a piece of art, I think it hopefully will bring value to conserving that region.”

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