Every year, scientists discover close to 20,000 new species of animals, most of which are insects. The discovery of a mammal is much rarer. For that reason, scientists were recently surprised to find a new species of mole rat in Africa.
Paul Van Daele, an expert with the University of Ghent, found the newest species of mole rat in the Ikelenge pedicle - an area that covers parts of Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola. It was noticeably smaller than most mole rats and had a distinct skull shape. It took several years of research, DNA tests, and chromosome tests to confirm Van Daele's hypothesis that this mole rat was indeed of a new species.
Van Daele named the species Caroline's mole rat, after his late wife Caroline Van De Woestijne, who died of malaria. Caroline made the first karyotype of the species. A karyotype is a description of chromosomes.
Van Daele and his team not only discovered Caroline's mole rat: they also found that the animal may be at risk. The African woodlands filled with miombo trees - where the newly discovered mole rat was found - are rapidly turning into cropland. The species will likely face threats from pest control. Additionally, mole rats are commonly targeted by hunters because they are an important protein source.
Mole rats spend almost their whole lives underground. They build complicated tunnel systems and feed on plant stems. Over the years, the way of living has led mole rats to develop smaller eyes and ears, teeth that point forward to aid digging, and nostrils that can shut at will while they dig. Mole rats are also uniquely adapted animals because they have long lives and don't seem to develop cancer. Thus scientists think they could be the key to finding a cure for cancer.
The discovery of Caroline's mole rat was a unique find. Scientists have discovered 28 endemic, meaning found nowhere-else, animals in the Ikelenge pedicle. Special places like the Ikelenge pedicle that are rich in animal diversity are important to the future of science. Perhaps with time, researchers will unveil additional species in this pedicle, and others like it around the world.
[sources: Mongabay; National Geographic Kids]