LIFESTYLE

Cat-sized chinchilla thought to be extinct found alive near Peru's Machu Picchu ruins

View of  Peru's famed Machu Picchu ruins in this July, 2006, file photo. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

View of Peru's famed Machu Picchu ruins in this July, 2006, file photo. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

In the shadow of Peru’s famed Machu Picchu, a group of researchers have discovered a cat-sized chinchilla that has long thought to be extinct but instead is alive and well.

The furry creature, which has only previously been seen as fossilized remains, was discovered near an archaeological site below the famed Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

The Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat, or Cuscomys oblativa if one prefers the Latin name, was first described after two skulls were found by Hiram Bingham in 1912 inside Incan pottery sculpted 400 years ago. The chinchilla creatures were first believed to have gone extinct before Francisco Pizarro began his conquest of the Incan empire.

But in 2009, a park ranger named Roberto Quispe saw what he believed to be the mysterious chinchilla while on duty. Soon after, a group of scientists — led by Horacio Zeballos the curator of the department of mammalogy at the Museum de Arequipa and Gerardo Ceballos from the Instituto de Ecología of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – traveled to Peru to begin their search for the elusive creature.

“In conservation biology, this type of rediscovery is called the Lazarus effect,” the team said, according to the Guardian newspaper. “Hard field work was conducted with the spectacular archaeological site as part of the landscape, on very steep hills, with slopes of up to 60 degrees of inclination, dominated by mountain forests, with leafy trees covered with mosses, lichens and other plants.”

The hard work paid off as the scientists soon found the chinchilla and confirmed that the Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat never went extinct.

The bad news, however, is that given the rarity of sightings of the chinchilla the animal is most likely an endangered species “because [of] its rarity and habitat destruction,” Ceballos said. He added that “large tracks of native forests have been destroyed because of agriculture and cattle grazing ... in its extremely limited geographic range.”

The good news is that the creature was found in Machu Picchu national park, which is relatively protected from logging and other industries compared to the rest of Peru.

“Both the national park and the historic sanctuary are relatively well-managed. They have staff and some infrastructure,” Ceballos said, adding that “it seems that the federal government has become more interested in reducing deforestation in the national park and the sanctuary in recent years.”

Besides the chinchilla, the scientists found a new mammal, a new lizard, and four new frogs in the same area.

“I am optimistic that the discovery of the [Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat] and other new species will help to strengthen the protection of the native forests,” Ceballos said.

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