Photographic evidence has ended speculation regarding the validity of reported recent sightings of a squirrel-like rabbit in the Forest of Dean, England.
Currently the only known photograph of the potentially new mammal species nicknamed the ‘squabbit’ © E. Walsh
Scientists have confirmed the existence of an unidentified but potentially new mammal species in the Forest of Dean, England. Reported sightings of a strange-looking grey squirrel over the past three months have raised nothing more than eyebrows. However, recent photographic evidence and further sightings have put an end to speculation, confirming the existence of a small rodent-like mammal that indeed somewhat resembles both the grey squirrel and the European rabbit.
Affectionately dubbed the ‘squabbit’, this new zoological discovery is stumping scientists as to which species it is more closely related; the grey squirrel is a rodent, whereas the European rabbit is a lagomorph. Its bizarre appearance has led the scientists to believe that it may well be a type of arboreal rabbit. The discovery of a new mammal species in the UK is extremely rare, and the case is being treated with extreme caution. However, should the squabbit be formally described as a new species, this would be one of the most significant scientific discoveries for Britain this century.
Scat sample of the potential new species collected for DNA analysis © E. Cureuil
Slightly larger than the grey squirrel, the squabbit has predominantly grey fur which is a lighter reddish-brown between the ears and at the back of the neck. It has the long, bushy tail characteristic of the grey squirrel, thought to aide its balance when climbing trees, but larger, rounded paws more similar to those of a rabbit. Indeed, the paws of this species are presenting somewhat of a mystery, as the shape would lead scientists to assume that it is a ground-dwelling rather than tree-dwelling species. Surprisingly, however, the majority of reports of the squabbit have described its nimble climbing behaviour and ease of movement among the treetops. The most unusual feature setting this species apart from grey squirrels is its long, rabbit-like ears that are held upright above its head.
Edouard Cureuil, Professor of Rodent Evolution and Ecology at the Université Thierry Lodé, Paris, commented, “Although there is a possibility of genetic mutation within the grey squirrel population, the morphological differences appear too great to attribute to mutation…initial thoughts are that it represents an entirely new species that has somehow, until now, evaded the human eye.”
The squabbit is believed to have a similar diet to the grey squirrel, feeding on acorns, nuts and seeds, among other things.
The fact that the squabbit has so far avoided detection leads scientists to speculate that the species is predominantly nocturnal, and that Britain’s currently unpredictable climate may have disrupted its behaviour. It is thought to have a diet similar to that of the grey squirrel, feeding primarily on acorns, nuts and seeds, although it has also been observed grazing on grass at the foot of trees. Further studies should confirm whether this species builds burrows underground or nests in trees.
Several theories on the arboreal tendencies of the squabbit have been discussed, the most popular being an adaptation response to predation risks from wild boar and the many birds of prey present in the Forest of Dean. Camera traps have been deployed throughout the small area in which the squabbit occurs, and it is hoped that they will enable scientists to gain further insight into the behaviour of this bizarre new species. Scat samples have also been collected for DNA analysis which should shed some light on the unclear ancestry of the squabbit.
If confirmed as a new species, the squabbit will be a major new addition to Britain’s otherwise well-known fauna, and an exciting step for the world of species discovery.
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Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author