'Borneo beast' seen in the underbrush
Patience pays for researchers who may have spotted new carnivore.
They may be mere glimpses of glinty eyes and swishing tail, but images released this week could show a carnivore that is entirely new to naturalists. Wildlife researchers working in the heart of Borneo's jungle captured the images of what they claim is a previously undiscovered species of carnivore lurking in the pitch-black forest.
The creature, yet to be given a name, has been hailed as a new species by researchers working for the international conservation group WWF. "We showed the photos to locals who know the wildlife of the area, but nobody had ever seen this creature before," says team member Stephan Wulffraat.
When the pictures were first seen, some speculated that the mysterious 'Beast of Borneo' was related to a lemur, or a fox. Others are convinced the creature shares its looks with marsupials. Whatever it is, its nocturnal lifestyle, shyness and apparent rarity seem to fit the profile of a meat-eater.
"There are not many creatures [in Borneo] in this size range, and this doesn't look like them, so the chances are it's something new," comments Sam Turvey, an expert in species identification at the Zoological Society of London.
"It's in the right size range for something like a secretive carnivore," he adds. To be sure, naturalists would need to see a good profile of the animal's head - something that the new photographs do not show.
If it is indeed a new species, it will be Borneo's first new carnivore since the discovery of the Borneo ferret-badger in 1895. "The tendency is for armchair naturalists to rule out any new discoveries," says Turvey. "But these things are still out there being discovered."
Spotting them, however, is painstaking work, says Turvey's colleague Chris Carbone, an expert on the 'camera trapping' techniques used to spot the Borneo beast.
The cameras are left in clearings or along forest trails for days on end. "They're effectively glorified security cameras," Carbone explains. Sometimes baited with food, the cameras are more usually equipped with heat or movement sensors, or simply left running continuously.
The Beast of Borneo could have escaped detection until now if it spends more time in the branches than on the forest floor, Carbone suggests. Cameras are not usually deployed in trees because they are too difficult to set up, he explains.