These days, new species are usually only discovered with the aid of a microscope (i.e. bacteria) or a deep-sea submersible. One recent exception, however, is the discovery of a new carnivore in Madagascar, named Durrell’s vontsira or (formally) as Salanoia durrelli. It was named in honour of Gerry Durrell, a well-known British naturalist who died in 1995. Durrell’s vontsira is a mongoose, in the same family as the better-known Salanoia concolor or brown-tailed mongoose. It is small with red-brown fur, weighs about 1.5 pounds, and stretches about 12-13 inches long.
Although the “discovery” of Durrell’s vontsira was only made in 2010, the animal which prompted the discovery was actually first captured and photographed in 2004. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (founded by the Durrell after whom the new mongoose is named) had been surveying the bamboo lemur population in Madagascar’s Lac Alaotra wetlands when it captured and released a Durrell’s vontsira. Only afterwards did the photos taken of the creature confirm it was not the same as the better-known mongoose. The following year, the Trust was able to capture two more of the animals in the same region and killed one to do further studies. It was this study which prompted the eventual publication, in 2010, of a paper describing the discovery.
So far, Durrell’s vontsira is known only to inhabit marshlands in the Lac Alaotra region. The specimens captured were in Andreba, a marsh located several thousand feet above sea level. One was swimming, possibly fleeing; the other two were found floating on matted plants. Despite the fact that it has been placed in the same genus as the brown-tailed mongoose, this suggests that the species behave quite differently – the mongoose also lives in Madagascar, but it prefers dry forest areas, not swamps. A species from another genus, the marsh mongoose (found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa), might be a better model of the new species’s behaviour.
Unfortunately, if Durrell’s vontsira really is limited to a small habitat in Lac Alaotra, this means it may already be threatened or even endangered by human behaviour. The region is named after Madagascar’s largest lake, Lake Alaotra, which is surrounded by shallow lakes and wetlands. The region has been stripped of much of its forests by human residents, and converted to rice production. The result has been erosion, introduction of foreign species, and increased pressure on native wildlife, probably including Durrell’s vontsira.