On the hunt for the Pokemon rodent | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 17.08.2016
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On the hunt for the Pokemon rodent

The flightless scaly-tailed squirrel is an elusive creature. No one has seen it alive so far. But a few specimens have been found - and now researchers managed to analyze its DNA.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call good publicity. Erik Seiffert from the University of Southern California called the African scaly-tail by a much catchier name - and interest in his story exploded.

Seiffert said the flightless scaly-tailed squirrel was basically "the ultimate Pokemon," because it was even harder to catch than the little monsters in the wildly popular Pokemon Go app. Zenkerella insignis is indeed one of the least researched mammals in the world.

"Scientists have still not been able to find [it] or catch [it] alive," Seiffert said.

The elusive rodent with the scaly tail lives in the deep forests of central Africa and is nocturnal. During the day it sleeps high up in the trees. There's not much more that researchers know about the species. So far, there have only been 11 specimen in museums worldwide. Now, three more can be #link:https://peerj.com/articles/2320/:added to the count#.

Distant cousins revealed

The US researchers didn't manage to capture the enigmatic animal alive this time either, but three specimen were found dead in traps on Bioko Island, which belongs to Equatorial Guinea. Locals said they would catch one or two a year, but that the meat wasn't very tasty.

The three bodies that were found now provided enough DNA for scientists to conduct an in-depth analysis of the scaly-tailed squirrel's genes. They found out that Zenkerella insignis is related to two scaly-tailed squirrels with webbing between their legs and elbows that allows them to glide from tree to tree.

While Zenkerella insignis can't do that, its scaly tail makes it a good climber - just like his cousins.

Zenkerella insignis has evolved over the past 49 million years. That's why researchers call it a "living fossil."

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