A good friend of mine sent me a camera trap photo of a cat-sized mammal the other day. It had been taken in a remote forest in the Sumatran highlands.
I know the mammals of this part of the world pretty well — my background is in mammal taxonomy — but I have absolutely no idea what this species can be. Its bi-coloured upperparts, size and shape of tail, and thickish black legs look like nothing known to science.
Admittedly it wasn’t the best photo possible. The animal’s head was turned away, and it appeared to be at the start of a jump, possibly frightened by the camera, which made it look strangely long-legged.
This happens regularly to me and other ecologists working in Indonesian forests. We get glimpses of strange looking mammals, in the flesh or on photos. We see birds that fit none of the known species.
Not so long ago, I studied an owl in East Kalimantan for about half an hour, and I pretty much saw every external feature of that animal.
But it does not appear in the books, not even those that show juvenile owl plumages, or provide details on any of the known colour variations. I know the type of owl, but this species is very likely new to science.
Unfortunately, we may never find out what the above cat-sized animal or unusual owl are. In the old days, someone like me didn’t use binoculars, but a shotgun. And the animal would tumble down from the tree, and end up in a museum collection where it could be compared to dozens of similar specimens. If it was new to science, someone would find out soon.
Now we don’t do that anymore, or only rarely. So, we end up with lots of tentative sightings and speculative interpretations.
At a time when we are rapidly losing species, we don’t actually have the means to describe those that we don’t know yet.
(Image: Unknown mammal, Batang Toru area, north Sumatra. Credit: Gregoire Bertagnolio/Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.)