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Pig-footed Bandicoot Rises From the Dead

1 April 2007 (All day)
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The Mammals of Australia

Welcome back.
The pig-footed bandicoot seems to have returned from extinction.

A kitten-sized Australian marsupial thought to have gone extinct over a century ago appears to be alive and well. The pig-footed bandicoot was last spotted in 1901, but today researchers provided fresh evidence of its existence. "It's a miracle," says Jared Watson, a conservation biologist at the University of Brunswick in Melbourne. "I thought we'd seen the last of this 8-teated, posteriorly pouched creature."

Known for its rabbity ears, thin legs, and hooflike nails, the pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus) was once widespread throughout inland Australia. Its name literally means "tailless pig-foot", a misnomer applied to a specimen that--unbeknownst to first describer--had lost its long, orange-brown tail in a taxidermic mishap. European encroachment in the latter half of the 19th century permanently altered the bandicoot's habitat, setting the creature on the path to extinction. Famed Australian naturalist Gerard Krefft is thought to have recovered two of the last specimens, but tired of subsisting on meager field rations, he ate them both. "I am sorry to say that my appetite overruled my love for science," Krefft wrote in his journal.

Now, a medley of multimedia may make up for Krefft's hasty stomach. In today's issue of Nature Zoology: Australia and Surrounding Islands, a team led by biologist Peter Shadbolt of the University of Queenstown in New Zealand documents three dramatic pieces of evidence for the pig-footed bandicoot's continued existence. The first is a photo taken by an American tourist on a walkabout. Although her thumb obscures most of the shot, a toe with a tiny, hooflike nail can clearly be seen in the lower right-hand corner. Then there's the audio evidence: At the end of a track entitled "Get Off My (Out)Back" from Australian rock band AC/DC's most recent album, Rockin' the Wilderness, there is the faint sound of two squeals quickly followed by a high-pitched yowl. "The band recorded the album outdoors," Shadbolt explains. "They must have caught a pig-footed bandicoot mating call during one of their sessions."

But the most convincing evidence, says Shadbolt, is a grainy video that showed up on YouTube in December. The clip, apparently intended to document the humiliation one man suffers after being hit in the groin by his own boomerang, catches a rabbit-sized creature fleeing with the pig-footed bandicoot's characteristic awkward gallop. "I snerked my Guinness when I saw the boomerang thwack the guy," Shadbolt says. "I almost missed the bandicoot footage."

In total, the evidence is so persuasive, says conservationist Terry Shaw of Canada's National Wildlife Alliance, that Australian game officials should set up a perimeter around the center of the continent and begin searching for more bandicoots. Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang has offered to clone the animal should any of its DNA be found.

But not everyone is convinced. "I'd say the creature in that video is more young-cat-sized than kitten-sized," says marsupial expert Langston Buckwalter of St. Elizabeth College in Oxford, U.K. "And its gait is clumsy rather than awkward." But most troubling, says Buckwalter, is the fact that Shadbolt's team published a nearly identical study on this date last year. "Something about the first of April tends to bring the dodos out of the woodwork," he says.

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