- A team led by an Ohio State University professor analyzed more than 4,000 species of mammals to identify animals that may have a hidden species.
- Some species yet to be discovered are likely small creatures like bats, rodents, moles, and shrews.
- 80% of mammals have already been identified, estimates Professor Bryan Carstens.
Mammals are one of the best-known animal species, with more than 5,000 species — including humans — identified on Earth, according to the National Wildlife Federation. But with so much known, a new study suggests there are hundreds of mammals that haven’t been scientifically discovered.
The research began when Bryan Carstens, a professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at Ohio State University, wondered if there was a way to find species traits in species that were hidden or unknown. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Carstens graduate students were unable to perform any fieldwork. So they focused their attention on the close examination of mammals.
The team used a “supercomputer and machine learning techniques” to analyze millions of genetic sequences from more than 4,000 species of mammals, along with information about where the species lived and their environment.
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The results allowed scientists to build a model to identify which animals are likely to have a hidden species, a species that has yet to be scientifically analyzed. Their findings were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It’s work that’s largely done with genetics with large-scale examinations of specimens that have already been collected,” Carstens told USA TODAY.
The animals likely to be discovered aren’t large creatures or those with distinct differences like big cats, bears, or even Sasquatch; rather, Carstens said most are likely small creatures like bats, rodents, moles and shrews.
These creatures will mostly be found in tropical rainforests as they are not easily accessible to humans, but they are likely present in the United States.
“You’ve probably seen one of these species,” Carstens said.
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What makes them easier to see in the United States is that most of the species we know have been discovered, but they haven’t been studied enough to see if certain populations show distinct differences. Carstens alluded to a 2018 study he participated in about the little brown bat. Found across the country, research has shown that a single species turned out to be five different species of bat.
“What’s crazy is that these bats look alike. I can’t tell them apart,” Carstens said. “But genetically, they’re almost as distinct as humans and chimpanzees.”
It is not known exactly how many mammals have not been recognized, but Carstens estimates that 80% of mammals have already been identified.
New types of animals are constantly being discovered around the world. In January, the World Wide Fund for Nature announced that 224 species had been discovered in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia in 2020. Of the newly discovered species, only one was a mammal; the Popa langur, a long-tailed monkey with white rings around its eyes.
But the Popa langur was named a critically endangered species when it was discovered. Animals yet to be discovered could find themselves in a similar situation, as Carstens notes that some species may go extinct before they are scientifically discovered.
The team also does not want to limit its research to mammals alone. They hope to identify more species of vertebrae in the future and hope that their method will open the doors to other types of animal discoveries.
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.