A new cow – a new species of ox, the pseudoryx, found in Southeast Asia – 1993 – The Year in Science
Clarence V. Reynolds
THE VU QUANG RAIN FOREST, WHICH STRADDLES THE MOUNTAINOUS BORDER OF LAOS AND CENTRAL VIETNAM NEAR THE NORTHERN TERMINUS OF THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL, IS A THICK, teeming, and remote conifer jungle. It would come as no surprise to learn that it contains myriad plants or beetles, say, that are unknown to western science. But Western science was surprised last June when a British zoologist announced the discovery in the Vu Quang of a new species of bovid–the first discovery of a large mammal in half a century.
The word discovery is used a bit loosely here because neither the zoologist, John MacKinnon, nor any other scientist has seen an intact specimen of the new animal, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis–not even an intact corpse. MacKinnon, who heads the Asian Bureau for Conservation in Hong Kong, became aware of Pseudoryx’s existence after examining skulls displayed by Vietnamese villagers in their huts. Because the bones looked like no species he knew, MacKinnon and a team of Vietnamese researchers set out to find the creature. But though they came across some unusual footprints and some droppings they couldn’t identify, the animal itself eluded them. Instead, MacKinnon and his colleagues collected skulls, hides, horns, and three complete skins from the villagers–and sent the lot off to a Hanoi taxidermist.
What came back was a “funny-looking goat,” as MacKinnon describes it, with a short, glossy coat and an elongated neck, but sporting the long, straight horns of an antelope. (MacKinnon named the animal Pseudoryx because its horns are similar to those of the oryx, a large antelope.) An adult Pseudoryx,
MacKinnon estimates, weighs around 220 pounds, stands three feet tall at the shoulders, and has small hooves and short, blunt toes. Its face is covered with bold black and white markings, and the body color varies from dark brown to red-brown.
Genetic analysis confirmed that the animal was a new species–but it’s more closely related to an ox than to a goat or an antelope. MacKinnon sent 11 tissue samples to Peter Arctander, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen, who compared Pseudoryx DNA to the DNA of other animals. “There was enough material to determine that it’s really different from any other known species,” says Arctander. He and MacKinnon concluded that Pseudoryx constitutes a new species and genus belonging to the same subfamily of bovids as oxen. (Goats and antelopes belonging to different bovid subfamilies.) Judging from its DNA, Pseudoryx branched off from the rest of the bovids around 10 million year ago. “What we basically have is a primitive cow that’s had a fairly undisturbed evolution,” MacKinnon says.
There’s no way of telling just how many of the animals are still alive; MacKinnon figures the 1,500-square-mile Vu Quang forest could support a few hundred at most. One of his goals, obviously, is to find a live Pseudoryx. But he’s also thinks it’s important to protect the animal’s environment. “I feel the priority is to save the habitat first and find out about the animal later,” he says. “If we do that, besides Pseydoryx, we’d be protecting lots of endemic animals and plants in what is a terribly exciting corner of the world.”
COPYRIGHT 1994 Discover
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