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Scientists have discovered not one, not two, but potentially six new species of this adorably awe-inducing little anteater, because we could all use a little more cuteness in our lives.
Named for its smooth fur coat, the silky anteater was once recognized as one species (Cyclopes didactylus). However, a decade of expeditions proved otherwise: a Brazilian group of taxonomists, zoologists, and geneticists say silky anteaters are made up of at least seven different species.
Scientists conducted 17 expeditions across Brazil and Suriname to collect morphological and morphometric information on silky anteaters, which was a task in and of itself.
"It was always very hard to spot the animals in the forest," said vet and Zoology PhD student Flávia Miranda in a statement. "Imagine a little creature that weighs only 250 grams [0.5 pounds], lives in the crowns of tall trees beside creeks or in mangroves and flooded areas, never comes down to the ground, never vocalizes, and is active only at night. I'd been in the field for two years before I made my first sighting."
They also visited more than 20 natural history collections around the world. They gathered measurements, photographs, and blood samples for molecular analysis, as well as described genders, geographic locations, and ages. The findings were published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) first described the short-snouted, pygmy-sized anteater as one species in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae. Over the next 200 years, six practically identical populations were discovered, but they were thought to belong to the same species.
To explore this further, the Brazilian group studied the biology, ecology, and mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from 287 specimens. They were also able to differentiate between the species via morphometric traits, mainly a smaller “rostrum” (snout) and a less robust skull.
Using the molecular clock technique, the scientists used the number of molecular differences in DNA to also estimate when the different subspecies diverged – turns out, a very long time ago.
The genus Cyclopes occurred 10.3 million years ago, probably around the time the Amazon River changed its course – the river reversed its direction to run west to east and form a floodplain in western Amazonia. Over the course of the next few million years, species began to diverge from this geographic separation. Since then, the pygmy-anteaters have changed little and, in some cases, not at all.
"The reason for this may be the life habits of these animals," said Miranda. "All species occupy a similar and highly specialized ecological niche with no competition."
While not much is known about the fluffy little furballs, we can say with absolute certainty that they are extremely adorable.