A real-life Pokemon: On the trail of a mysterious squirrel

Story highlights

  • Paleontologists discover that little is known about this creature
  • The animal is thought to live high in the trees in Africa

(CNN)Scientists are hot on the trail of an elusive and ancient squirrel-like creature called Zenkerella insignis. It's got fur and paws like a squirrel's but has a scaly-bottomed tail. For more than a century, researchers have been playing a real-life game of "Pokemon Go" with these creatures with absolutely no success ... at least until now.

Dr. Erik Seiffert is the driving force behind what he insists is not a scientific snipe hunt.
    Zenkerella, a squirrel-like creature living in the modern world, has never been found alive and scientists want to know more about it.
    The scholar from University of Southern California wrote about this mysterious animal in the newest edition of the journal PeerJ. Seiffert is a paleontologist who has discovered and named plenty of long-dead animals, and he doesn't normally mess around with modern ones. But he couldn't help it when he discovered how little is known about this rodent equivalent of Bigfoot.
    His interest was sparked while on a dig in northern Egypt. There, he found several fossil bones from a rodent that roamed the planet about 37 million years ago.
    It was the creatures' limb bones that intrigued him most.

    Never seen alive

    To understand how creatures evolve, paleontologists compare the fossils they find with the bones of modern equivalent animals. When Seiffert went to compare the bones he found to Zenkerella, he learned that it may have been easier to compare them with the bones of the Loch Ness Monster.
    Digging through the known literature, Seiffert discovered that no scientist had ever seen the creature alive. There were only 11 examples of Zenkerella in museum collections, and none of those samples was complete, nor had anyone sequenced the creatures' DNA. The last time any samples did turn up had been about three decades before, making Zenkerella one of the least-studied mammals on the planet. This also meant scientists knew more about a creature that lived 37 million years ago than about ones that live today.
    But Seiffert had a stroke of luck: He learned that a colleague was moving closer to prime Zenkerella territory. David Fernandez is a primatologist and conservationist at the University of the West of England today, but before he moved to Bristol, he took a job as director of the Moka Wildlife Center on Bioko, an island off the west coast of Africa.
    Equally intrigued by the lack of research on his new neighbor, Fernandez asked the village elders about Zenkerella. They told him they had actually caught this mysterious creature in their ground snares periodically. Not knowing their scientific relevance, they'd throw the bodies out. The tiny, tough animals weren't good eating.
    In fact, in Bubi, the local language, the villagers had a name for Zenkerella: "musulo."
    "Musulo" means "inferior to all squirrels."
    Fernandez explained scientists' interest in the animals and asked the villagers to preserve any bodies they came across.
    The plan worked. A few days before Fernandez was supposed to leave the area, the chief of one of the local villages said an "inferior to all squirrels" had been caught and killed in a trap.
    For the first time, scientists would have access to a whole creature.
    Several months later, traps caught two more creatures, and just a few weeks ago, they got confirmation that a male and female were caught by the traps and killed.
    Fernandez's camera traps have not had as much luck, and none has been captured alive, but even the dead ones will tell researchers a lot more than we currently know.

    Living fossil

    Scientists swabbed their little rodent cheeks and ran their DNA, discovering that the animals were not related to gliders, as scientists had thought. Instead, the creature is a kind of living fossil.
    Genetically, they have evolved, but atomically ,they haven't changed all that much since they first roamed the planet more than 31 million years ago, at least. To put that in perspective, Seiffert said, humans last physically diverged from chimpanzees about 6 million to 8 million years ago.
    Only a handful of other "living fossils" have been identified, such as the pen-tailed tree shrew and the monito del monte, a chubby kind of wide-eyed marsupial that's slightly larger than a mouse and another excellent climber. Scientists know a lot more about those than Zenkerella.
    They don't know much about how this African creature eats, how they socialize, how they mate or what the little guys do for fun. Researchers hope to capture a live Zenkerella so they can tell his or her interesting back story.
    But with these dead specimens, scientists will at least be able to study what they ate, and that could help if they do ever hope to catch one alive. "We'd hate to capture one, not know what to do with it and have it die right away," Seiffert said. "That would be disastrous."
    What they do know, based on the new DNA results, is that Zenkerella is a distant, rather than kissing, cousin to two other scaly-tailed squirrels. The difference is, those other creatures have webs between their elbows and legs that help them glide between the trees. Alas, Zenkerella cannot soar between branches.
    It gets categorized in the same family because all three have those scales at the bottom of their tails. Scientists think the scales work like the tread on your gym shoe, helping the creatures get a better grip as they climb trees. They can use their tail like a fifth limb, or so scientists think. Until researchers do see them alive, the scales could just be an interesting fashion statement, for all they know.
    The villagers who have accidentally caught these creatures over the years believe the Zenkerellas are nocturnal and live high in the trees, sleeping in tree hollows. The animals must come to the ground at some point, as they do get caught occasionally in these traps.
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    Zekerellas are not considered endangered. The Union of Conservation of Nature puts them in the species of "least concern," because they are thought to live in many places and habitats in Africa, but of course no one is certain.
    Seiffert hopes someday he will be more certain about what the animals do and how they live. Though they may be "inferior to all squirrels" to the locals, to Seiffert, solving this modern mammal mystery would be momentous.