• Scientists conducted the first investigation in 22 years into the Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine, an elusive forest porcupine in Brazil.
  • With the fresh tissue of a new specimen, the scientists used the porcupine’s DNA sequence and physical traits to better trace its relationship to other species.
  • Their discovery shows the porcupines are more widespread in the Amazon than previously thought, a hopeful sign of their resiliency despite ongoing deforestation.

In 1996, Dutch biologist Marc van Roosmalen first described a small “piggy-like” porcupine near the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon. The creature had brown fur, yellow and black quills, and a long limb-like tail. He believed it resembled Sphiggus melanorus, a black-tailed dwarf porcupine, but this creature was half its size, suggesting that it might be a new species

Five years later, mammologist Robert Voss at the American Museum of Natural History in New York confirmed Roosmalen’s suspicions. He named the squirrel-sized animal Van Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine (Coendou roosmalenorum).

Now, for the first time since Voss’s study 22 years ago, researchers have described new information on C. roosmalenorum. In a recent study in Zookeys, a team led by biologist Fernando Heberson Menezes, a professor at the Regional University of Cariri in Brazil, reveals the little quilled creature exists beyond the banks of the Madeira River, in a region being rapidly deforested.

Distribution of C. roosmalenorum in Brazilian Amazonia. The diamond labeled “1”, is the locality for where the most recent specimen was found, from Mato Grosso state, Brazil. The other numbers label where the last four records of C. roosmalenorum were found. The darker gray area represents the Madeira Province as defined by Morrone et al. (2022). Graphic from Heberson Menezes et al. in ZooKeys

Porcupines of the genus Coendou are nocturnal tree-dwellers that live high up in Central and South American rainforest canopies, making them extremely difficult to spot. They face numerous threats including deforestation, dogs, hunters, and vehicle collisions; of the 16 species of Coendou known, six are so under-studied that their conservation status remains a mystery.

One is the elusive Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine, categorized as Data-deficient by the IUCN due to lack of recent information on its status and ecology. In 2021, the Brazilian team included C. roosmalenorum on a Coendou evolutionary tree. But because there were no fresh samples of the animal, the scientists used only its physical traits.

“The lack of molecular information of C. roosmalenorum prevented us from properly understanding its relationship with other porcupine species,” said Heberson Menezes in an email to Mongabay. He led a team of seven Brazilian and Portuguese researchers on the new study.

Roosmalen's dwarf porcupine (Coendou roosmalenorum) Photo credit: M.G.M. van Roosmalen
Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine (Coendou roosmalenorum) Photo credit: M.G.M. van Roosmalen

The scientists found their missing link when a bulldozer killed a Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine at a mining site in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. The animal’s body was about 23 centimeters (9 inches) long, and tail was around the same length. Like previous C. roosmalenorum specimen, the new one had brown back fur, yellow and black quills, and a long tail to latch onto tree branches.

While researchers had collected three C. roosmalenorum specimens in the past, the way they were preserved prevented ecologists today from sequencing the DNA of the species. With the fresh tissue, scientists could untwine its molecular information for the first time. By combining the porcupine’s physical and molecular structures, the team revealed how the species has evolved in relation to its Coendou cousins.

“Now, we have a better idea how this species can be interpreted in the tree of life,” Heberson Menezes said.

Roosmalen's dwarf porcupine (Coendou roosmalenorum) in 1996. Photo credit: M.G.M. van Roosmalen
Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine (Coendou roosmalenorum) in 1996. Photo credit: M.G.M. van Roosmalen

The new specimen was found 480 kilometers (300 miles) southwest of the small area along the Madeira River containing all previous known records of C. roosmalenorum. The discovery shows that the porcupines are more widely distributed than ecologists had thought. With no spottings elsewhere, the team suspects the porcupines are endemic to this part of Brazil.

In this region, deforestation poses the biggest threat to porcupine populations. Between 2008 and 2023, the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso lost more than 22,700 square kilometers (14,000 square miles) of forest cover, reducing the available habitats the species can use. But if the porcupines are roaming across the forest, their extinction is less likely.

Annual deforestation in Mato Grosso since 2008 according to INPE.
Annual deforestation in Mato Grosso since 2008 according to INPE.

“If it’s widely distributed, then it’s unlikely to be made extinct by, for example, a single soybean plantation,” said Voss, who was not involved in the new study. He believes that if we look harder, we could see more of them.

Heberson Menezes hopes to continue studying how rare species are classified on the tree of life to contribute to porcupine knowledge and conservation as a whole.

Andrea Tamayo (@andreaxtamayo) is a graduate student in the Science Communication M.S. Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Other Mongabay stories produced by UCSC students can be found here.

Citation:

  • Menezes, F. H., Semedo, T. B. F., et al. (2023). Phylogenetic relationships, distribution, and conservation of Roosmalens’ dwarf porcupine, Coendou roosmalenorumVoss & da Silva, 2001 (Rodentia, Erethizontidae). ZooKeys, 1179, 139–155. doi:10.3897/zookeys.1179.108766





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