new species of tapir

A few weeks ago, the word came out that a new species of tapir (pronounced TAY-pir, they are a pig-sized group of mammals with a long proboscis and three to four toes, distantly related to rhinos) had just been found and formally described. For most of us in the life sciences, this is exciting if not exactly earth-shaking news. As our techniques for identifying new species are getting better and better, we are finding more and more examples of creatures that were known to the local indigenous peoples, but not yet recognized by zoologists. In most cases, these new species are only subtly different from previously described species, so zoologists may have seen the creature before, but not yet recognized that it was a different species from its more familiar close relatives. In many cases, the specimens may have already been collected and were sitting in museums, misidentified. This is particularly true in the case of new species that don’t look that different externally (sibling species), but can be distinguished based on more subtle differences. In the old days, sibling species had to be identified based on things like behavior. Now, there are a number of new species recognized based on molecular differences that are not manifested in anatomical differences we can see with the naked eye.

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