A Mystery Species Was Discovered in Trafficked Pangolin Scales

The pangolin is an absurd animal, a mammal that’s dressed up as a reptile with a coat of scales, sharp claws and sticky saliva. Wildlife experts often say they are the most trafficked mammals in the world as poachers target pangolins for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional medicines. There are eight species, all under various levels of threat.

Or, sorry, make that nine species. Researchers have determined that scales confiscated in Hong Kong in 2012 and 2013 and in Yunnan, China, in 2015 and 2019 belong to a previously unrecognized pangolin species that has yet to be formally described — but is hiding in plain sight. The find was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The amount of data that was generated on the very limited sampling they have is exceptionally impressive,” said Matthew Shirley, a conservation biologist at Florida International University and chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group who was not involved with the study.

To determine that the scales belonged to a new species, researchers analyzed 17 genomes sampled from the confiscated pangolin scales and compared them with 138 genomes from the eight known species of the animal. They also scrutinized the shape and structure of the 33 seized scales and found features similar to those of Asian pangolins, suggesting the mystery animals fall within Manis, the group of the animals found in Asia, rather than Phataginus or Smutsia, the two groups found in Africa. The genomic data confirmed the familial ties, and the researchers named the new species Manis mysteria.

While the ninth pangolin has yet to be found and formally described by scientists, that doesn’t mean nobody knew it existed. “It’s probably being captured and being called a Sunda pangolin or something like that,” Dr. Shirley said, referring to Manis javanica. This makes M. mysteria an example of cryptic diversity, where unique evolutionary lineages are difficult to recognize because they look similar to already known species. The researchers noted that they were unable to distinguish M. mysteriafrom other Asian pangolins by its scales alone.

It turned out that the confiscated scales had come from seven M. mysteriaindividuals. Using their genomes, the researchers were able to estimate that the armored animals diverged from other pangolin species “over five million years ago,” said Hua-Rong Zhang, a conservation geneticist at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong and an author of the paper.

Dr. Zhang and his colleagues next hope to find the new species in the wild, he said, but he also notes that, given its physical resemblance to other Asian pangolins, “it’s possible that a specimen of this new species is already stored in a museum or natural history collection.”

Piecing together the genetic diversity of pangolins is important for stopping their poaching. To figure out where illegally trafficked scales are coming from, and which pangolin species are most at risk from poaching, the authorities need a strong reference database that matches pangolin genetics with geographic locations, Dr. Shirley said. Dr. Zhang plans to keep collaborating with Li Yu, a biologist at Yunnan University in China and an author of the paper, to develop “forensic tools to help inform law enforcement and pangolin conservation.”

Ending the illegal pangolin trade won’t just take cooperation between scientists and law enforcement. Perhaps counterintuitively, the people buying the pangolins need to be brought in too. Dr. Shirley said it is futile to try “swimming upstream against the demand of millions and millions of people.” Rather than demonizing the traditional use of pangolins because it goes against Western values, he added, “you have to find a way to engage those consumers as important stakeholders in the sustainability of the species.”

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