They’re small, furry and look like mice – but scientists say they’re actually a new species of hedgehog. An international collaboration of researchers led by Smithsonian researchers identified five new species of soft-furred hedgehogs, according to a study published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
The researchers said they were able to use DNA analysis, as well as the animals’ physical characteristics, to identify two entirely new species and elevate three hedgehog subspecies to species status. Distinguished by their furry bodies and pointed snouts, the small hedgehogs, known as lesser gymnures or Hylomys, are native to Southeast Asia.
There were previously only two known species of the group – now there are seven in total.
Lead researcher Arlo Hinckley first became fascinated with identifying new hedgehog species during his postdoctoral work, according to a statement published by the Smithsonian. He worked with the museum’s curator of animals, Melissa Hawkinsand other collaborators to collect 232 physical samples and 85 tissue samples for genetic analysis from across the Hylomys group, enabling them to identify these new species.
Some of the samples were collected from field research – which with small mammals can be extremely difficult.
“Imagine trying to follow a 10 cm animal around to see their behavior,” Hawkins told CBS News.
Hinckley added: “Like most small mammals, they are elusive. They will generally hide in their burrows, under roots or in tall grass if you get close to them.”
Researchers used museum specimens from the natural history collections of the Smithsonian and Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia to fill the gaps, Smithsonian said.
“We were only able to identify these new urchins thanks to museum staff who curated these specimens over countless decades and their original field collectors,” Hinckley said in the statement. “By applying modern genomic techniques, as we did many years after these hedgehogs were first collected, the next generation will be able to identify even more new species.”
The next and most fun part, the researchers said, was naming the new species.
“This is the first time I get to name them and describe them from scratch, so it was very exciting!” Hinckley said.
The two new species names are H. macarong, after a Vietnamese word for vampire, because of the male’s long fang-like incisors, and H. vorax, after a description of its behavior by mammalogist Frederick Ulmer, according to the press release.
Hinckley said they “had a brainstorming session where we came up with several silly names for H. vorax.”
The three subspecies that were elevated are called H. dorsalis, H. maxi and H. peguensis.
Scientists do not know exactly how many species have yet to be discovered.
“For mammals, there are about 6,500 currently described species,” Hawkins said. Hinckley pointed a survey from 2018 that predicts “7,342 mammal species will be recognized by 2050 and 8,590 by 2100.”
Identifying new species can help conservationists protect habitats as well as identify the sources of new diseases that can affect humans, the researchers said.