A groundbreaking discovery has been unveiled by researchers at Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China – a new species within the hedgehog genus Mesechinus. This distinctive hedgehog species, named Mesechinus orientalis, was identified through a comprehensive analysis of morphological and phylogenetic characteristics, setting it apart from other regional hedgehogs.
Published in the open-access journal ZooKeys, the paper titled “A new species of forest hedgehog (Mesechinus, Erinaceidae, Eulipotyphla, Mammalia) from eastern China” delves into the meticulous research that led to the formal description of this novel hedgehog species. Unlike its known counterparts (M. dauuricus, M. hughi, M. miodon, and M. wangi), which primarily inhabit northern China, Mongolia, Russia, and southwestern China, M. orientalis stands as an exclusive resident of eastern China.
Between 2018 and 2023, seven Mesechinus specimens were collected from eastern China, forming the basis for the researchers' investigations. Employing diverse methodologies, including morphological measurements, mitochondrial genome sequencing, assembly, annotation, and phylogenetic analysis using genetic data sourced from GenBank, the team reached a resounding conclusion.
The evidence, spanning morphological, morphometric, and genetic aspects, solidified the status of Mesechinus orientalis as a distinct species within the Mesechinus genus. While sharing morphological similarities with M. hughi, this new species is distinguishable by its smaller size, shorter spines, and unique cranial characteristics.
Intriguingly, the researchers delved into the evolutionary timeline, estimating divergence times from the most recent common ancestor. The genus Mesechinus first emerged in the early Pleistocene around 1.71 million years ago. Notably, M. orientalis was estimated to have diverged from its ancestors approximately 1.10 million years ago, with M. hughi and M. wangi separating from each other around 0.74 million years ago.
These extensive time frames of divergence suggest prolonged isolation among hedgehog populations, likely attributed to climatic shifts during the Pleistocene. These shifts could have altered migration routes, fostering enduring geographic isolation among these captivating hedgehog species.