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.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. That’s quite a contrarian position and I admire your courage considering how many people might be horrified by your suggestion. Yet, as much as I’d like to argue that we get all the information we need from audio, video, and non-lethal collection, you make a good case to the contrary. I was part of a long conversation recently with an ornithologist who goes on many a “collecting” trip; his position is that legal, properly-executed, professional collection is vital to ornithology and by extension biology.


  2. Well its funny you should bring this up. I’ve had a similar experience with coral reef fishes once or twice. I see a fish that I suspect may be new (most recently in Halmahera, Indonesia), but unless I collect a specimen (ie shoot it) and send it to the taxonomists for confirmation, it remains unknown to science or perhaps a figment of my imagination?

  3. Thanks for the comments. As far as I know, any species new to science requires a type specimen which cannot be replaced by a photo, video or recording. No specimen – no species. These issues become very sensitive when the putative new species is thought to consist of one or few small populations, for which the removal of one specimen could have quite an impact. Otherwise, it would be quite a good idea to start collecting a few animals again, especially in poorly studied places like much of Indonesia. And also importantly, we need to go back to the old museum collections. Pretty every mammal group that have I done work on has come up with new taxa.

  4. Have you read The Snake Charmer by Jamie James? It’s about herpetologist Joseph Slowinski and his sad end in Burma, but it also explores the issue of collecting specimens, including those who oppose it (like WCS conservation biologist Alan Rabinowitz).

  5. Hi Erik. Thank you for sharing this very intriguing question. With the development of new imaging technology and DNA, can we replace the notion “no specimen-no species”?

  6. It is a good point. Do you or any scientist believe that everything should be known about every subject. Mystery is one of the driving forces behind life. Without mystery adventure would indeed be rather ordinary.

  7. Good discussion Erik and all.
    We had somewhat similar experience of late with photographs of a wolverine in the sierras long after many had thought them extinct here. Camera work and scat analysis have been adequate for identification and followup studies are underway. It would not have been appropriate (or legal) to take the animal. I’m not comparing this to your mystery observation and possible new species but it would seem that more intensive study with cameras, hair samples, scat, tracks and more would be the next course of action. Collection of specimens is and should be regulated and of course has a place in conservation biology. There are so many more of us now and if unregulated, what would the added pressure be from this activity? Never an easy answer but thanks for “triggering” the discussion!

  8. I know I’m not really an expert in this area, but camera’s can often distort images. Take those UFO pictures always broaadcasted over the news; it may look like an alien aircraft but is probably a trick of the light or an airplane. Though I do completely agree that we should be a little more agressive with our searches for new species.

    1. I agree about the weird effects that cameras can produce. A few years ago, an unusual photo from Borneo of an animal that no one recognized went around the world (see this, for instance). Experts were speculating wildly about “arboreal foxes” or even lemurs, which only occur on Madagascar, light years away in geographic as well as evolutionary terms from Borneo. I analyzed the photos and published a paper in Mammal Review (2006, 36(3): 318-324 – I can send a pdf if you are interested), where I rather convincingly, at least so I think, showed that the strange creature was one of the large flying squirrels of Borneo, which had come down to the ground. Seeing this species, which normally occurs in the high canopy, on the ground had completely confused people. The funny thing was that many people got highly excited when the mystery species appeared in the news. But when it was debunked as an unusual photo of a rather common species, no one wanted to know.

  9. If we are close enough to “shoot” it, why not with tranquilizers rather than bullets.

    1. I am not an expert in shooting – in fact I have never held of shot gun in my life, let alone fire it, so I am probably not in a position to answer that question. But I have been involved in a lot of orangutan relocations where the animals are darted with tranquilizers. That may work reasonably well for large arboreal species, but chances of catching anything smaller with that technique are pretty slim. Of course, non-destructive methods can be used such as mist-netting or life traps. The point I am really making, however, is that very few conservation people are actually out there collecting. So, whichever the collecting method, we simply will not find anything new until we start looking.

  10. the photo is unclear of the head & upper body part — appears to be a bizarre mix of a car & a small monkey (tail); could it be the love-child result of an odd mating pairing of the two? could happen

    1. I doubt it, but please prove me wrong. I actually think it is one of the civet (viverrids), which for whatever reasons has lost a lot of hair from its tail (disease, fights with other civet, who knows).

  11. correction to earlier note — meant pairing of a ‘cat’ & a monkey.

    1. I thought so, was already wondering what kind of car you’re driving.

  12. Describing an unknown species does not save it. On the contrary, knowledge of a ‘new’ species opens it up to exploitation – poachers would have a new target whose market price would be artificially inflated by its novelty and apparent rarity. If we are interested in saving the species, why not conserve the habitat? No doubt there are already many known potential umbrella species that could be used to obtain scarce conservation dollars to conserve the Sumatran forests.

    1. Good point, and one of the main reasons we are working with a habitat rather than species focus. Even in our orangutan programs I always clarify that the orangutan is a symbol (and certainly in the ‘west’, a very powerful one) for conservation and sustainable management of large forest landscapes in Sumatra and Borneo; the individual orangutan is not the focus of our work. Providing the incentives for long-term sustainable management of such forest lands is the key challenge. New species may help a bit in focusing the attention on certain areas, but that’s all really. Still, we sometimes completely overlook how important certain places are – especially in the poorly studied and remote parts of SE Asia — until we find something new. And then we look again, and a lot of thing turn out to be new. This provides strong incentives to focus conservation action into such areas. We could indeed not look at all, and then no one knows, no even the poachers. But poachers are only part of the problem, and a pretty small one compared to large-scale degradation and deforestation processes that really hammer a lot of species.

  13. Hi Erik,
    I’ll take a copy of that Mammal Review pdf if you don’t mind. Funny you mention this mystery likely being a civet. I shared it with a retired biologist from Smithsonian (who also does a lot of “camera trapping” these days) and he guessed the same thing with some question about the tail and missing striping. I’m guessing working with orangutans must be quite a handful. Maybe we’ll read more about that here…
    Thanks, Dale

    1. Hi Dale,

      Masked Palm Civet (Paguma larvata) is my best bet. Because you can’t see the typical face marking it is not clear, but apparently some of these civet do have the reddish and dark brown markings of the animal in the photo.
      Pdf is on its way via email.


  14. I see nothing wrong with shooting a net and capturing any new species as to study it for a specified period of time and then returning it to it’s home. I admit I know nothing about this, am sure there would be difficulties, but I would appreciate if someone could explain why something like this could not be done.


    1. Hi Kay,

      There are two issues with that. First shooting a net in a dense tropical forest won’t be easy, because it would likely get tangled before it got even close to the putative new species. Also, for a species to be named new, a type specimen is needed, and this needs to be compared to other species. So, if do you want to find and name a new species, some killing will have to happen. Whether the search for new species justifies that is another question.

      All the best


  15. Kay, I believe the article is referring to shooting to kill… which seems contradictory with the goal of conservation. If everyone thinks “it’s ok, i’m just taking one…” there might not be any left at all! My guess is that people who are suggesting that shooting to kill is ok if it is “regulated”, “properly executed” and “professional”, haven’t lived in a country where corruption is rife and policing crimes against humans is difficult, let alone those against non-human animals. Also, ‘responsible’ shooting regulation (is that an oxymoron?) would require some prior knowledge of population numbers to be put in place so that the number of animals shot doesn’t endanger the species. Accurate population numbers are very difficult to estimate and validate even for better known species. Anyway… whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

  16. Hi Erik,
    I am a PhD student studying wild orangutans at Suaq Balimbing in south Aceh. Last week a visiting Indonesian amphibian and reptile specialist came to the swamp to document and collect species — that is, already-known species to science in the hope that one of his catch may be a new one. He discussed also his many other field-trips all over the archipelago on such collecting sprees.

    I realise the argument may be different for mammals and reptiles but it makes me wonder if maybe, while the Westerners have our morals and ethics to contend with, local Indonesian field biologists in the meantime have no problem with ‘diving in’ with collecting and killing specimens for collections. Should we re-evaluate our western ethics when working in an eastern world? ..Or, retain our ethical high-ground?

    I also wonder, how many other Indonesian biologists are out there also collecting and documenting specimens — our swamp collector cannot be alone in this vast country. Surely?

    1. Hi Andrea.

      Good point and I have similarly noticed the eagerness to collect among Indonesian taxonomists, even though the species the had captured were obviously not new to science. I am not sure what is going on there. I do not condone such collection, although on the other hand I know that it can be really hard to determine in the field whether something is already known to science or not. You may need extensive measurements and comparisons to other specimens.
      With regard to being somewhat flexible on our ethics when working in a country where those ethics are somewhat different., I think this should be your personal decision. There certainly is value in rethinking our western “high morals” and assess how solid these really are.

      All the best and good luck with your work in Suaq,


  17. As an Ornithologist friend once said to me – “A sighting [of any species] is like catching the snippet of a radio broadcast – it’s fleeting at best. A collected specimen, on the other hand, is like a book in a library – it can be studied in depth, easily compared to others, and returned to again and again for further study. “

  18. Hi Erik,
    I did not see this blog until just now. The photo was a Paguma larvata. How sure? 100%. I have had a dozons of this guy in camera traps and handled few too in the field. Hope this help. Interesting blogs. I will read more when I have more time.

  19. Could it be argued that this article addresses the old debate of conservationists vs preservationists?

    The preservationists want to exclude too much human interference by focusing on protecting the habitat.

    The conservationists want to control and categorize leading to the protection of “key species”.

    I personally side with the preservationists and prefer the removal of “human” focused strategies and the way we want to do it which is often at the expense of every species except our own.

    Ps. I just wanted to say – Nina fantastic points.

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