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It’s a long-standing mystery in biology: What is the smallest amount of land needed to evolve a new mammal? Since the 1980s, researchers thought the lower limit was 110,000 square kilometers—about the size of Cuba. Now, one team of scientists has deduced that an area one-tenth that size will do—and it could be smaller still. The finding is good news for conservationists and others concerned that climate change and habitat loss are going to speed up extinctions.
To discover the lower limit, the team turned to islands, whose isolated locations often make for an ideal laboratory—researchers can usually determine which animals arrived there and which evolved there. Lawrence Heaney, an evolutionary biogeographer at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, worked for years cataloging mammal diversity on the Philippines’s largest island, Luzon. He discovered that its 105,000 square kilometers hosted 66 mammal species, not including bats. Surely smaller islands could also allow new species to diversify, he thought. So he and his colleagues searched for just such a place. They settled on Mindoro, the seventh-largest island in the Philippines.
Inventory - Mammals - Rats - Mice - Water
In 2013, they started an inventory of all the mammals there, including rats, mice, and the dwarf water buffalo. They set up live traps on the slopes of all five of Mindoro’s mountain ranges to catch the smaller ones, including a kind of long-snouted, earthworm-eating mouse native to the island, on which they focused their initial analysis. After comparing their DNA and looks, the scientists realized the mice represented four separate species—three living on their own mountains, and one occupying the lowlands below.
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