Scientists are hot on the trail of an elusive and ancient squirrel-like creature called Zenkerella insignis. It's got fur and paws like a squirrel's but has a scaly-bottomed tail. For more than a century, researchers have been playing a real-life game of "Pokemon Go" with these creatures with absolutely no success ... at least until now, CNN reports.
Dr. Erik Seiffert is the driving force behind what he insists is not a scientific snipe hunt.
To understand how creatures evolve, paleontologists compare the fossils they find with the bones of modern equivalent animals. When Seiffert went to compare the bones he found to Zenkerella, he learned that it may have been easier to compare them with the bones of the Loch Ness Monster.
What they do know, based on the new DNA results, is that Zenkerella is a distant, rather than kissing, cousin to two other scaly-tailed squirrels. The difference is, those other creatures have webs between their elbows and legs that help them glide between the trees. Alas, Zenkerella cannot soar between branches.
It gets categorized in the same family because all three have those scales at the bottom of their tails. Scientists think the scales work like the tread on your gym shoe, helping the creatures get a better grip as they climb trees. They can use their tail like a fifth limb, or so scientists think. Until researchers do see them alive, the scales could just be an interesting fashion statement, for all they know.
The villagers who have accidentally caught these creatures over the years believe the Zenkerellas are nocturnal and live high in the trees, sleeping in tree hollows. The animals must come to the ground at some point, as they do get caught occasionally in these traps.
Zekerellas are not considered endangered. The Union of Conservation of Nature puts them in the species of "least concern," because they are thought to live in many places and habitats in Africa, but of course no one is certain.
Seiffert hopes someday he will be more certain about what the animals do and how they live. Though they may be "inferior to all squirrels" to the locals, to Seiffert, solving this modern mammal mystery would be momentous.