A study published earlier this month in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Societydescribes six distinct new species of silky anteater, meaning there are now officially seven species of the elusive mammal, not just one.
Silky anteaters are small, nocturnal animals that live in the canopies of trees in the tropical forests of South and Central America. They are known as very discreet and thus difficult to find, which helps explain why Cyclopes didactylus, the common anteater, was one of the least studied anteaters in the world and had been considered to be a single species up until now.
Flávia Miranda, a researcher at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil and the study’s lead author, told National Geographic that she first suspected there might be more than one silky anteater species after noticing that populations in the Brazilian Amazon had different fur colorations than those in the Atlantic forest.
Miranda and a team of researchers set out to study the silky anteater more closely, but due to the animal’s secretive nature, it took them two years to finally capture a specimen from which they could take DNA samples.
“We spent many months during 19 expeditions in the Amazon and other rain forests searching for the little anteater,” Miranda said in a statement. Her team eventually collected 33 samples of DNA from wild anteaters and examined more than 280 museum specimens from around the world in order to determine that silky anteaters are actually far more genetically and morphologically diverse than was previously understood.
The researchers established that Cyclopes didactylus occurs in northern South America and northeastern Brazil. They also validated three other species designations proposed by previous researchers: Ida’s silky anteater (Cyclopes ida), found north of the Amazon River and west of the Negro River; the Central American silky anteater (Cyclopes dorsalis), found in Central America and the Pacific coast of northern South America; and the Yungas silky anteater (Cyclopes catellus), found in the Bolivian Yungas, a narrow band of forest that lies along the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains.
Miranda and team also described three completely new species: Thomas’ silky anteater (Cyclopes thomasi), named in honor of Oldfield Thomas, a British naturalist who made significant contributions to our knowledge about silky anteaters; the Xingu silky anteater (Cyclopes xinguensis), found along the Xingu River in Brazil; and the red silky anteater (Cyclopes rufus), which sports fiery red fur and is found in Rondonia, a state in western Brazil.
Fabricio Santos, a geneticist at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and co-author of the study, said that there could be several other such discoveries to be made in the areas where silky anteaters live, but that scientists are essentially in a race against time if they want to discover them all.
“Four years ago, we described a new tapir species from the Brazilian Amazon, and now we have six new species of silky anteater,” Santos said in a statement. “There are probably many more new species waiting for description in museums and in the wild, and they may be extinct before we have the chance to know them.”
The common silky anteater is listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but that may not pertain to all of the newly discovered species.
The six new silky anteaters have just been formally described and their conservation statuses have not been formally assessed, but Miranda said that there is already cause for concern about their future: “Although silky anteaters in general are still widespread in the Amazon region, many of the new species may be under heavy pressure from deforestation, mining, and agriculture, among other threats.”