The silver-backed chevrotain — a mysterious animal that's the size of a rabbit but looks like a silver-splashed deer — has been photographed in the wild for the first time. The chevrotain is the world's smallest hoofed mammal, or ungulate.
Scientists say they have rediscovered a type of chevrotain that had been "lost to science" for nearly 30 years.
"They are shy and solitary, appear to walk on the tips of their hooves and have two tiny fangs," says Global Wildlife Conservation, which helped back the project that recently tracked down the elusive animals in southern Vietnam.
Scientists made the new sighting after getting tips from locals who reported seeing a gray chevrotain in the forest — meaning they had likely seen a silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor) rather than the more common lesser chevrotain (Tragulus kanchil).
In late 2017, researchers set up camera traps near the forest floor and left them for five months, hoping to capture evidence of the two-toned animal that's sometimes called the Vietnamese mouse-deer. The cameras were set up less than a foot off the ground to ensure they could capture a good picture of the diminutive animal.
"We had no idea what to expect, so I was surprised and overjoyed when we checked the camera traps and saw photographs of a chevrotain with silver flanks," said expedition team leader An Nguyen, a conservation scientist for Global Wildlife Conservation who is also field coordinator with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.
"For so long this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination," Nguyen said in a news release about the research, which was published Monday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
All three of the cameras in that initial survey returned photos of the silver-backed chevrotain — an encouraging sign that led to a second round of camera traps. In that more intensive phase, 15 of 29 camera stations recorded photos of the creatures.
As they announced their findings, the researchers also urged the government and conservation groups to study the newly recorded population so the chevrotain's habitat can be preserved and potential threats to its survival identified.
"Discovering that it is, indeed, still out there is the first step in ensuring we don't lose it again," Nguyen said, "and we're moving quickly now to figure out how best to protect it."
Because the animals live in the Greater Annamites, a region spanning Vietnam and Laos that's known both for its high concentration of endemic mammal species and for its intensive hunting, the scientists who tracked down the silver-backed chevrotains said they won't be sharing the exact location of their discovery, from the name of the forest to the GPS coordinates for their camera traps.
Before the recent discovery, a total of five silver-backed chevrotains had been seen in only two confirmed instances: in 1910, when researchers acquired four specimens, and in 1990, when a joint Vietnamese-Russian expedition obtained a silver-backed chevrotain that had been killed by a hunter.