Chimera Incognito

The discovery of four new species has the world buzzing with excitement.
By Brenda Cambero

In times of strife and turmoil, humans have consistently turned to fantastical stories. To escape our painful realities, we conjure images of all-powerful heroes and the impossible creatures that populate their fictional world. Nine-headed dragons and winged horses fluttered around in our collective fantasies. What would the children in us think of a world where those fantasies have come to life, where we can touch each feather and feel their warm breaths on our palms? As we grew up, we banished these fantasies from our minds as childish daydreams, never to be seen again... until now, that is.

The discovery of new species is always a major event in the scientific community, but these new animals have been at the center of an even larger question that has captured field researchers and biologists across the globe. "Each new species we discover shows how remarkably diverse our planet is," says Cy Entzman, head of the Rhea-Serge Institution. "The sheer amount of biomes in our world have allowed for so many different animals to rise and evolve to fit their environments and niches. You could say that every species is strange in its own way, but the ones we have recently discovered have striking similarities to other well-known species of animals that... you wonder if they were chimeras made in a lab."

Field researchers officially announced the discovery of these new species on Wednesday, accompanied by photos. Such photos subsequently went viral, drawing reactions of shock and awe from many corners of the internet. Their discovery sparked debate within and outside the ecologist community, discussing the unknown origins of the animals as well as their ecosystem’s current state. For as excited we are of the prospect of animals like these, both familiar and exotic, what should we make of the reality of such creatures joining our already-fragile ecosystem? Where they wreck havoc on animals ill-equipped to handle their new, sudden enemies?

One of the first of the newly-discovered species, Pteropus articus, originally touched upon those fears. Its range and similar appearance to the snowy owl, an already-endangered species, led scientists to fear that it would eventually compete with the owls. Thankfully, upon further observation, that doesn’t appear to be the case. P. articus can be found in the Artic regions of North America, but it prefers the forests further south than where its snowy owl “cousins” traditionally range. In many ways it takes after the bat, and not only in appearance. A diet of fruit, leaves, and other plant matter is reminiscent of the feeding habits of megabats. Insects also make up a large proportion of what this creature eats, suggesting a greater need for protein. Their bat-like wings allow them the dexterity to navigate the forest with ease as it hunts its prey.

These new animals have quickly carved a niche in their respective habitats as a predator, preying on already-established species in their ecosystem. The elusive Pterodentia mustela possesses the sharp bite, muscular build, and predator instinct of the common mink it resembles. Its patagium–the skin-like membrane stretching from its forearms to back legs–are reminiscent of a flying squirrel. It glides down from treetops to ambush small prey such as mice and small birds, using size and strength far beyond a flying squirrel's capabilities. Rasselnus canis resembles the wolf in its social structure, traveling and hunting in packs. Its tail feathers are nearly identical to the peacock's with one crucial change: barbs along the shaft that create a "rattling" sound when brushed against another feather. Rattling its tail feathers turns its beautiful mating display into a threatening promise, one that is used to warn away competitors as well as aiding their hunting strategies. Broad, eye-like feathers create the illusion of a large, all-seeing predator, frightening prey animals such as swamp deer and wapiti into running away. This allows R. canis to control its prey's movements and drive it towards the rest of its packmates. 

Abaius arca, with its gar-like ruthlessness and ability to constrict prey like a snake, has been a topic of great concern among research and ecologists studying the Amazon rainforest. Since its discovery, it has cemented itself as a powerful predator prowling the Amazon river, aggressively attacking any creature that encroaches its territory. For the creatures of the Amazon, the land animals that attempt to traverse the river and the marine animals forced to share its waters, A. arca represents yet another threat to their existence as human activity continues to threaten their habitats. "Their apparent low numbers [...] are giving us time to assess the threat of A. arca and how we should handle them in the future," says Entzman. "We collected and are in the process of raising some young specimens to understand their growth cycle, and so far they seem to grow slowly. There are no guarantees in nature, but this combined with how infrequently they eat suggest that there is still a chance for us to minimize their impact on already-endangered species such as the Amazon river dolphin."

In spite of how little is known about these "chimeras", the world has already fallen in love with them. And how couldn't they? R. canis, the first of the new species to be discovered, quickly dazzled the world with its striking colors and resemblance to two of the world's most popular and recognizable animals. Exotic enough to attract attention, yet familiar enough for us to imagine them standing before us, to imagine the touch of their fur and their warm breath on our palms...

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