In southern Vietnam, an unusual house cat-sized deer relative has escaped the efforts of wildlife biologists. While local lore suggested it was still around, attempts to find one alive had failed—and even a dead specimen hadn’t been seen in 30 years.
But in research reported today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the borderline-apocryphal silver back chevrotain (or Vietnam mouse-deer) has been spotted in the wild. But due to the prevalence of snare hunting in the area (basically wire traps, described by a CNN report as “barbaric”), the paper’s authors are being tight lipped as to where.
But the sighting is important for one big reason: a live specimen has never been spotted. It actually took quite a bit of field work, in fact, to even figure out where to look.
“We didn’t have much to go on,” Andrew Tilker, Asian species officer at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), told Popular Mechanics. “The species was described in 1910 from four specimens that were probably confiscated from local hunters, and the locality information for those four specimens was around this city in southern Vietnam called Nha Trang.”
“We had that one piece of information, and then there were no more scientifically validated records until 1990 when a joint Vietnamese-Russian expedition also got a specimen from a different part of Vietnam, from the Gia Lai province.”
So Tilker and An Nguyen—a field biologist affiliated with GWC—and collaborators set out to find it. They talked to several locals in what they believed to be the range of the chevrotain in order to find a good potential spot, settling on one near Nha Trang.
“After I interviewed local people, we sent the team to the area where they’d seen the species and set up cameras,” Nguyen says.
The cameras were set up in November 2017. After that, the team waited…and waited. That April, they retrieved the cameras and there it was—the silver-back chevrotain, with 72 “events” in all (though it’s hard to determine how many individuals those events represent).
Having correctly ascertained that this was the right area to look, they set up a more intensive fleet of camera “traps” in the area and had another 208 events (defined as a one hour period during which a creature or creatures are sighted.) The markings in these sightings were the same as the previously captured specimens.
They were able to glean a few things based on these events. The first is that the chevrotain appears to be active during the day. The other is that, more often than not, they’re somewhat solitary.
Despite the sightings, the team still doesn’t know much about the small deer. For instance, the population number is unknown, and this study only offers proof that it’s alive in one part of its historic range. As deforestation has taken place in some of the believed-range since the first specimens were taken in 1910, it’s possible that it exists in isolated pockets, which could risk the entire population of the species.
“Ultimately we want to understand how threatened or not the species is, and before we can assess its conservation status we need to know more,” Tilker says.
The chevrotain is not the first animal that has seemed to “disappear” from the scientific world, only to be “refound” (though as Tilker is quick to point out, locals knew it was still there). There are a whole group of species called “lazarus taxon” that are found alive after only being known from fossil records.
One big example is the coelacanth, a fish which to the western world was known only from fossil records until a live specimen was found in 1938—marking a 66 million year gap between when it was believed to have gone extinct and when it was “discovered” (again, in scientific terms—unsurprisingly, locals knew of the fish.)
There are, relatedly, species believed to be extinct in modern times that are later rediscovered. For instance, the Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise was last seen in 1906. That is, until a live female was reported earlier this year.
Southeast Asia also has several species that, owing to geographic isolation and other factors, have only come to the attention of the scientific world in the last few decades. For instance, the giant muntjac wasn’t officially recorded in scientific literature until 1994, just two years after the saola was announced.
Thus, the natural world still often has surprises in store—but that shouldn’t undercut how vital conservation efforts should be for these species, especially given the potentially precarious position of the chevrotain thanks to snare hunting.
Sources : popularmechanics.com