Science news in brief: A test for Scottish wildcats to a discovery of a tiny ape

Nicholas St Fleur, James Hill, C Claiborne Ray
There are as few as 45 wildcats left in the highlands: Getty/iStock

Test to tell endangered Scottish wildcats from domestic cats

A genetic test has been developed to distinguish wildcats from domestic cats to help protect endangered species. The biggest threat to the Scottish wildcat, Felis silvestris, is widespread interbreeding with feral domestic cats. Between 45 to 100 purebred wildcats remain, mostly roaming remote parts of Scotland’s western Highlands.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is using the test to build a picture of the species’ status in the wild. However, the elusive and fierce animals are seldom available for testing.

Research groups Wildcat Haven and Scottish Wildcat Action have also developed what might be called a breed standard to identify wildcats, which may help how far a cat has crossbred with a domestic animal.

The male wildcat is bigger than the average house cat but the females are about the same size. Wildcat fur is much thicker, and the cats have solid black and brown stripes. Spots, broken stripes or white fur are indications of hybrid status. Wildcat tails are thick and banded with complete rings, and purebreeds have no stripe running down the back of the tail.

Conservation groups in Scotland are neutering feral cats so they do not further dilute the rarer breed – the UK’s last native cat.

Fossil molars from the newly identified species Simiolus minutus (Stony Brook University/James Rossie)

Tiny molar leads to discovery of smallest ape

A tiny fossilised molar found in the sweltering shrubland of Kenya’s Tugen Hills belonged to what may be the smallest species of ape yet discovered, according to a study. The newly identified extinct species, Simiolus minutus, weighed only about eight pounds, slightly less than an average house cat.

Dwarfed by today’s gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans, the miniature ape was possibly a casualty of natural selection, unable to compete with colobine monkeys that ate the same tree leaves some 12.5 million years ago.

“They were trying to do what colobines were doing, which was foolish because no one had that same equipment,” says James Rossie, a palaeoprimatologist at Stony Brook University in New York, referring to the monkeys’ digestive abilities. “They brought a knife to a gunfight and then found out the knife was a plastic picnic knife.”

Dr Rossie found the tooth in 2004 with his colleague Andrew Hill, from Yale University. Their finding, which was published in the Journal of Human Evolution, provides insight into one aspect of an arms race between ancient apes and monkeys during the mid-to-late Miocene epoch some 6 to 14 million years ago.

Before then, apes dominated the landscape, easily outnumbering monkeys. For some reason, that changed during this period, as ape diversity crashed and the number of monkey species exploded. Today there are more than 60 colobine monkey species across Asia and Africa, including the lutungs, the bulbous-nosed proboscis monkey and the snub-nosed monkey.

The reason so many apes disappeared, including Simiolus, is not clear. Prevailing hypotheses are that they died out because of competition from monkeys and environmental changes. Echoes from the changes in that period are still felt today as there are only about 20 species of apes, in contrast with more than 130 species of Old World monkeys in Africa and Asia. Habitat destruction by humans, though, is now the primary threat to species from both primate groups and the main reason their numbers have declined in recent times.

When Dr Rossie found the molar, he realised it looked similar to two teeth collected in the 1970s and 1980s. The three teeth were different enough for him to know it was a new species.

The molar measured about 0.15 inches across and Dr Rossie was able to extrapolate the size of the ape’s jaw and body, which were smaller than any living or known extinct species. The smallest living ape is the gibbon, which weighs between 10 and 30 pounds.

By analysing the shearing crests on the molar, they determined the species was at least a part-time leaf eater. Previously they had identified fossils of an early colobine monkey at the same site, which led them to suggest that the ape and monkeys competed against each other for food – a possible piece of the jigsaw for the fall of apes and rise of monkeys

The mummy of a 30,000-year-old baby mammoth called Masha (Alamy)

A museum showing its age and sharing its DNA

Standing alone at the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexei Tikhonov gazes at Masha, a 30,000-year-old baby mammoth he brought over from a Siberian riverbank 30 years ago.

Masha is part of a collection first formed from acquisitions by Peter the Great three centuries ago. The exhibits are taking on a new, more vital role – as the animal world becomes increasingly threatened, they are are helping unlock genetic information and precious clues to aid species’ survival.

The museum is “a time capsule for organisms”, says Ross MacPhee, curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Down the hall from Masha, in a cabinet holding birds of prey, are two California condors – vultures. Probably the oldest specimens in the world, they were brought to St Petersburg by a collector in 1851 from Fort Ross, originally a Russian outpost in California.

When researchers at Pennsylvania State University began searching for genetic information on the scarce population of California condors in the US – there are less than 500 birds – the university asked St Petersburg for help. A few months later, a feather from each bird was dispatched to the scientists for study.

Genetic material is increasingly stored by zoological museums and institutions in frozen samples. But the information to be gathered from dry specimens is also useful, said Mikhail Kalyakin, ornithologist and director of the Zoological Museum at Lomonosov State University in Moscow.

To ascertain the fate of the slender billed curlew, for example, ornithologists analysed DNA in the skin and intestines of museum specimens to pinpoint the birds’ traditional habitats, helping to guide the search for remaining birds.

“As species come under threat, we hope that in the future, due to these genetic efforts and new methods, it will be possible to restore these species,” Dr Tikhonov says. “But restoring the woolly mammoth, an oft-cited possibility, is another proposition altogether.”

The notion is that the mammoth genome could be recovered, at least in part, and introduced somehow into an elephant embryo. But the science behind such a “de-extinction” would be bogglingly complex. Dr Tikhonov, a world leading expert on mammoths, is quick to point out the complications.

“We cannot, for the moment, reconstruct a mammoth without making hundreds or thousands of mistakes,” he says.

Dr Daniel Fisher, of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Palaeontology, notes that ancient DNA is heavily fragmented. So for now, this debate is hypothetical. But few doubt that the technology to create hybrid mammoths will one day be realised.

© New York Times