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"Weirdest" Animals to Get Conservation Attention

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 16, 2007
 
A conservation effort announced today aims to protect some of the
world's oddest and most overlooked animal species.

The Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) program, led by the Zoological Society of London, focuses on animals that have unique evolutionary histories and face immediate risk of extinction.

The project combined existing data on species relatedness and threat status to develop a list of a hundred top animals.

In 2007 the project will focus on ten high priority species from that list "with potential for slipping through the gaps without notice," said Samuel Turvey, a project scientist with the zoological society.

"Of the top 100 species which we're focusing on, more than 70 percent receive either no conservation attention or extremely limited attention," Turvey said.

The highest priority species, the Yangtze River dolphin, may already be extinct, he added.

Turvey recently visited China to survey the entire known range of the dolphin, which diverged from all other river dolphins 20 million years ago, and failed to locate any. (Related story: "China's Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce" [December 14, 2006].)

"It appears to have died out because there wasn't any conservation action done in time," he said.

"For 20 years conservationists recommended things that needed to happen that no one ever acted on," he added. "We need to make sure that what happened to the Yangtze River dolphin never happens to any other species."

EDGE will raise awareness of the animals and their plights, fund research studying the species in their natural habitats, and then help execute conservation plans.

Ten Targeted Animals

The Zoological Society of London's focal species for 2007 include the following animals:

Yangtze River dolphin: Also known as the baiji, this pale, blue-gray freshwater dolphin with tiny eyes lives in one of the world's busiest and most degraded waterways—China's muddy Yangtze River.

Since the mid-1980s conservationists have advocated moving some baiji to a safer environment to establish a breeding program, but no funds were ever allocated for such a program. Many scientists suspect the dolphin may already be extinct.

Long-beaked echidna: These spine-covered, egg-laying mammals—among the island of New Guinea's last surviving indigenous animals—are characterized by long beaks that comprise two-thirds the lengths of their heads.

Traditional hunting—along with forest habitat loss to farming, logging, and mining—are the primary threats to long-beaked echidnas.

Hispaniolan solenodon: This shrewlike insectivore native to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola is about the size of a large brown rat. It is one of the few mammals that produces toxic saliva, which the animal injects into its prey through a special groove in a front tooth.

Slow and clumsy, the solenodon is poorly equipped to fight off introduced predators such as dogs and cats and is also threatened by habitat loss from human activity and deforestation.

Bactrian camel: Able to survive for days on end without food and water, Bactrian camels—likely the ancestor to all two-humped camels—are adapted to life in Asia's hostile and fragile Gobi region.

The camels have lost habitat to mining and industrial development and must compete for food and water with introduced livestock, including domestic camels. Many are also shot when they wander outside protected areas. Conservationists also fear interbreeding with domestic camels has led to a loss of the genetically distinct wild population.

Pygmy hippopotamus: This small relative of the common hippopotamus is distinguished from its cousins by a round head, eyes on the side of the head instead of the front, and separated toes with sharp nails instead of webbed feet. Like its relatives, the pygmy secretes a thick, oily substance known as blood sweat that allows it to stay in water or a dry atmosphere on land for extended periods of time.

The pygmy hippopotamus has a discontinuous and shrinking presence in western Africa, likely because of logging, farming, and human settlement. It is also hunted for its meat.

Slender loris: This small primate with long, slender arms and legs (see photo) is found only in Sri Lanka. It has a small face with huge round eyes that provide excellent night vision for hunting insects. (Related photo: "Baby Loris Beefs Up in Zoo Nursery" [July 31, 2006].)

Both subspecies are losing their habitats to logging, agriculture, and development and are hunted for their meat and body parts, which are used in folk medicine.

Hirola: Perhaps the world's rarest and most endangered antelope, Africa's hirola appears to be wearing glasses because of a white line across its forehead and circling its eyes.

Disease, predation, and competition with domestic livestock are the major threats to the hirola, which can be found in Somalia and Kenya. And though illegal, hirola poaching is also a serious danger.

Golden-rumped elephant shrew: A bright yellow patch of fur on its rear easily distinguishes this shrew with a long, elephant-like trunk. About the size of a small cat, it is the largest of the elephant shrews and has long, spindly legs, large eyes and ears, and a long, partially naked tail.

The shrews are endemic to Kenya, but they are found only in fragmented and small patches of coastal forest. Habitat destruction is the primary threat, with most of its habitat now too small to support viable populations.

Bumblebee bat: Weighing in at 0.07 ounce (2 grams), this is the smallest mammal in the world. The bumblebee-size creature has a swollen, piglike nose, relatively large ears, and small eyes concealed by fur.

The bats are found in caves at Sai Yok National Park in Thailand and have also been reported in southeastern Myanmar. Once threatened by tourist curiosity and scientific collection, the bat today is primarily endangered by forest burning near their caves in Thailand.

Long-eared jerboa: Very little is known about this small, jumping rodent with enormous ears. The jerboa resembles a mouse with a long, tufted tail and elongated hind legs, and its ears are about a third larger than its head.

Living in the desert habitats of northwest China and southern Mongolia, the jerboa faces habitat disturbance from livestock grazing. In addition, the animal's water sources are drying up, though the cause is uncertain.

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