Friday mystery object #323 answer

Last week I gave you this incredibly cute mystery floofball to identify:


It took approximately 10 minutes for palfreyman1414 to work out what it was and come up with an excellent cryptic clue as to the identity of the genus:

Right, best guess is that this is a genus of tiny anno domini public transportation.

Tiny (=micro) anno domini (=AD aka Christian/Common Era, abbreviated to CE) public transportation (=bus) which gives us Microcebus.

Microcebus É. Geoffroy, 1834 are commonly known as the Mouse Lemurs, a genus containing 24 currently recognised species of tiny Malagasy primates.

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Normally I’d be looking for a species level identification, but that would be a real challenge, since the members of this diminutive genus are remarkably similar in appearance – especially if you only have a very faded 100+ year old specimen to work from.

In fact, before genetic analysis was available, only two species of Mouse Lemur were formally recognised, with another couple proposed but disputed. In the last 20 years there have been a further 20 new species recognised, meaning that despite the label on the Dead Zoo specimen saying it’s Microcebus murinus (Miller, 1777), it could well be something else – perhaps even a new species yet to be described.

I say that because even though researchers have been busy finding new species, they are mostly working in the field and several of the species being discovered are incredibly rare due to habitat loss in Madagsacar. When our specimen was collected it could easily have been from an area that was logged before researchers had a chance to do genetic work on the Mouse Lemurs present, so there may have been species there that were never discovered before they were lost.

This idea of species being lost before they’re discovered is a depressing, but very real one. Most taxonomists agree that there are around ten times as many species on Earth as have been described by science so far. More are being discovered all the time, but they tend to be from areas with fewer scientists (unsurprisingly), but not necessarily areas with less human impact.

Rainforests are a good example, where species diversity is incredibly high, but dams, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture to support soy, palm oil and cattle farming are gobbling up huge swathes of habitat before biologists have ever seen it.

To put that into some kind of perspective, England and Wales are much less diverse than a rainforest environment, but new species are still being found despite having a couple of centuries of extensive and systematic recording and collecting. The perspective comes from the fact that an area of rainforest the same size as England and Wales is destroyed every year, before it’s ever had a chance to be studied.

I talked about some of the issues of extinction on the Mooney Goes Wild radio programme recently, which you can listen to here if you’re interested.

More mysteries next week!

6 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #323 answer

  1. Very depressing to think of extant species going extinct before we’ve even recognised their species status. We need more taxonomists!

  2. Also rather troubling is the confusion about the species concept itself, which gives rise to conflicting estimates over the number of species, and further doubts among the lay public about accuracy in science.

    • But is that something that can actually be resolved? You have the rule-of-thumb definition of fertile interbreeding which seems to work as little but a rule-of-thumb. You have the morphological and genetic descriptors. You have strange lineages like those of the bdelloid rotifers. And then you have the Linnean binomial conventions. None of these match each other and, I think in principle they cannot be made to match either.

      I can see why it would be frustrating, and even confusing to laymen, but the species concept is, I have thought for a while, merely a utilitarian one: it’s a way of record-keeping in a sense, of keeping things in order. Nature herself doesn’t care.

      Of course, environmental concerns makes it tempting to name as many species as possible, so each gets separate attention, but maybe it is time environmentalists and taxonomists, and other biological scientists, introduced a different concept.

      I have no idea what form it would take, and any proposal would no doubt upset lots of people, but maybe we need to introduce something and, bit by bit, reduce the importance of the species concept instead of trying to clarify it.

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