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School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Discovery of two mole-rat species creates new protected areas in Tanzania

On the slopes of Mount Hanang, near to one of the mole-rat sites
On the slopes of Mount Hanang, near to one of the mole-rat sites
Chris Faulkes

Dr Chris Faulkes

Reader in Evolutionary Ecology

Dr Chris Faulkes’ research into evolution and biodiversity led to the discovery of two new mole-rat species in Tanzania.

His team’s assessment for one of the species to be given ‘Endangered’ status, under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Categories and Criteria, means the Hanang mole-rat now has ‘trigger species’ designation, which protects its habitat.

This research also influenced the creation of a new nature reserve, bringing protection and sustainable tourism to the area.

A breakthrough in taxonomy

Up until recently, similarities between species and genera have disguised deep genetic differences, making classification of some species challenging. However, advances in molecular systematics have created breakthroughs in taxonomy – and, as this study shows, such breakthroughs have varied, lasting impacts.

Fukomys hanangensis

Fukomys hanangensis, one of the mole-rat species discovered by Dr Faulkes and the focus of this research

DNA sequence analysis has enabled Dr Faulkes to work out a comprehensive understanding of different mole-rat species and their phylogenetic relationships – a vital starting point in comparative studies.

Dr Faulkes’s work has laid the foundations for further significant discoveries about other mole-rats, such as his work on muscle ageing in naked mole-rats. His team’s studies also shed light on some of the naked mole-rats’ medicinally-significant traits: they are naturally resistant to cancer and have extreme longevity, living up to ten times longer than rodents of a similar size. 

 Fukomys livingstoni, emerging from a tunnel

 Fukomys livingstoni, emerging from a tunnel

The creation of these KBAs and the protection this affords these areas, its species and inhabitants is essential in the preservation of this pristine forest habitat

What did they find?

In 2010, while studying African mole-rat biodiversity, Dr Faulkes suggested that there could be previously un-discovered mole-rat species in the isolated habitats of Ujiji and further away around Mount Hanang in Tanzania.

Research into that hypothesis led to the discovery of two new mole-rat species in 2017 (Fukomys livingstoni and Fukomys hanangensis) in Tanzania. Both of these species seemed to be limited in distribution and are therefore rare, range-restricted species.

Globally important areas of conservation

Further studies showed that the Hanang mole-rat (Fukomys hanangensis) was distributed in and around two globally important areas of conservation – Mount Hanang Forest Reserve and nearby Nou Forest Reserve. In both places, the reserves’ boundaries (represented by the white lines in Figure 1) are surrounded by almost entirely deforested areas.

Satellite image of Nou and Mount Hanang forest reserves

Satellite image of Nou and Mount Hanang forest reserves, indicated by the white lines. Locations of the Hanang mole-rat are shown by red and green dots (animal catching sites and burrow locations respectively)

What’s the impact of these findings?

The discovery of the Hanang mole-rat was significant enough for the species to be classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘Endangered’ in their Red List of Threatened Species and so designated an important ‘trigger species’ (ie an endangered species whose presence triggers the need for protection).

This means that applications can now be made for the Nou Forest Reserve (305 km2) to be classified as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) – a globally critical habitat for endangered species – and for a renewal of the KBA designation for the Mount Hanang Forest (59 km2).

The human benefit

More than 50,000 people live in the villages around the Mount Hanang reserve, with more around Nou, and over 900,000 people live in the combined Hanang, Mbulu and Bababti Districts, where these reserves are located.

The creation of these KBAs and the protection this affords these areas, its species and inhabitants is essential in the preservation of this pristine forest habitat, which is culturally significant to the Barabaig and Iraqw tribes. This also protects the water supply from river catchments, helping to prevent soil erosion across the region.

The team in the field: Dr Faulkes (with camera), Georgies Mgode (with notebook, co-author on the species description paper), Daniel Hart (in red) and three villagers from the Mt Hanang area

The team in the field: Chris Faulkes (with camera) Georgies Mgode (co-author of the species description paper, with notebook), Daniel Hart (in red) and three villagers on Mount Hanang.

Community dialogues

Debates about the protected status of the Hanang mole-rat between the Tanzania Forest Services (TFS) and local people in Hanang and Nou forest nature reserves led to the publication of improved management plans for Hanang in 2016. These plans detail how these areas should be properly monitored for conservation of biodiversity, sustainable water supplies and soil qualities.

Lasting impact beyond conservation

These reserves are near Arusha, a popular tourist region, and the road has been upgraded, in the hope that both reserves can attract sustainable tourism in coming years. Hanang and Nou’s new conservation status – encouraged by Dr Faulkes’s research – as areas of protected and unspoilt mountain forest will attract investment in infrastructure because of their increased profile and status. Investment is already coming through from UNDP Global Environmental Finance for new headquarters, ranger posts, and entrance to the Nou Reserve, bringing benefits to the area for mole-rats and humans alike.

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School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

We are home to an active and multi-disciplinary research programme. Our research staff are engaged in a wide range of projects across the broad sweep of biological, chemical and psychological sciences.

Evolutionary Genetics and Genomics

Our research focuses on the ecological and evolutionary aspects of population divergence, speciation and hybridisation. We have a particular strength in genomics, with staff working on diverse non-model species encompassing trees, arthropods, fishes and mammals.