In most cases, the discovery of a new animal species would be considered a positive finding in the scientific community. But the circumstances surrounding the recent unearthing of an entirely new slender-snouted crocodile species in Africa could be an exception to this general rule of thumb.
As it would seem, researchers were observing slender-snouted crocodiles in the wild when they recognized some peculiar physical characteristics in some specimens that captivated their attention. A DNA analysis later revealed that the physical differences were no accident – these were indeed different crocodile species. The findings appear this week in the journal Zootaxa.
Albeit wonderful that researchers have identified a new species, the discovery is proving to be bittersweet. It just so happens that the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes the slender-snouted crocodile as a critically-endangered species.
The discovery of the new species means that the small number of slender-snouted crocodiles that are thought to exist is lower than initially thought; this is because that number is now being shared among two different species.
"Recognizing the slender-snouted crocodile as actually comprised of two different species is cause for great conservation concern," said study lead author and crocodile expert Matthew Shirley.
"We estimate only 10 percent of slender-snouted crocodiles occur in West Africa, effectively diminishing its population by 90 percent. This makes the West African slender-snouted crocodile one of the most critically endangered crocodile species in the world."
This isn’t the first time researchers accidentally happened upon a new crocodile species in the wild, but it hasn’t happened for almost 85 years. The newly-discovered species sports a slightly different skull shape and differently-shaped scales, each of which agrees with the genetic differences observed.
Not only will the findings intrigue crocodile aficionados, but it should draw the attention of conservationists. The latest revelation means that there are fewer slender-snouted crocodiles than initially believed, and no one knows yet how many of the new species exist.
"We hope that this better understanding of slender-snouted crocodile evolution and taxonomy draws much-needed attention to the plight of this species, which has long been recognized as the least known crocodilian in the world," Shirley added. "My objective wasn't to describe a new species. We set out to examine the evidence and better understand these elusive crocodiles."
As it would seem, crocodile researchers have a lot of work to do if they’re to better understand the new species and how it impacts the known numbers of the slender-snouted crocodile.