The Zenkerella insignis is an elusive squirrel species that has been giving headaches to biologists for years. Now, thanks to three well-preserved specimens, scientists managed to shed some light on the mysterious animals, placing them in their right spot in the taxonomic tree.
Researchers have long known that the Zenkerella squirrel exists, however, not one single scientist managed to spot a living specimen over the years. The handful of sightings were made by locals who ventured in the dark forests at night when the animal is most active.
Three well-preserved Zenkerella insignis specimens were recently found by scientists, the DNA collected from the rare samples being enough to determine their genetic structure and the place that they should have in the taxonomic tree.
Until recently, the elusive squirrel was believed to be a part of the Anomaluridae family. However, latest evidence places the animal in its own family, the Zenkerellidae.
The issue was that the Zenkerella is not able to glide as the other two species from the Anomaluridae family. The latter has a special interstitial membrane that helps them glide from tree to tree from roaring heights. The Zenkerella lacks the ability, scientists concluding that has to be put in another category.
If the three species were grouped under the same family, it would have implied that either the Anomalurus and the Idiurus evolved their webbing separately, or that the Zekerella lost its gliding abilities in time.
All of the three squirrel species have a peculiar scale growth at the bottom of their tales.
Categorization aside, researchers are frustrated that the elusive squirrel managed to reach a “living fossil” status due to the incredibly rare sightings. Moreover, the animal seems to have barely changed over its evolutionary history.
From the little data that scientists gathered over the years, it seems that the elusive squirrel has been around since the early Eocene, evolving independently in the African forests, high up the top of the trees, far from curious eyes.
For 49 million years, ever since the species appeared on Earth it has managed to keep itself out of the way of predators. It’s doing such a fine job at being a stealth master that researchers don’t even know what its culinary preferences are, or how a nest looks like.