Can This 76-Million-Year-Old Species Survive... Us?

hispaniolan solenodon photo

The Hispaniolan Solenodon may look a bit strange for a modern mammal, what with its long snout, hairless legs, and rat-like tail, but considering how long they've been around, it's no wonder why their look is not in vogue. Solenodons, it turns out, are one of the oldest surviving mammals on the planet, with a lineage dating back some 76 million years ago--and they've been through a lot. Having survived the same asteroid impact which killed the dinosaurs, as well as millions of years worth of temperature extremes, the hearty creature now finds itself on the brink of extinction, because of us, of course.The BBC joined a group called The Last Survivors on an expedition to the island of Hispania, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the only place in the world solenodons can be found--if one is lucky enough, that is. Once, the island possessed a variety of different mammal species, but now just a few solenodons are all that remain.

Of course solenodons, which have changed little over the past 76 million years, are no stranger to hardships. The species became isolated on their island home after Hispania separated from the mainland, in close proximity to where the asteroid impacted which ultimately killed the dinosaurs and made extinct many of the planet's species. But through that harrowing experience and its aftermath, the strange-looking solenodons carried on, perhaps by burrowing into the earth, reports the BBC.

After that, the solenodons endured geological eras of hot and cold climate extremes over the course of millions of years, managing to survive where others did not--all while remaining relatively unchanged. One of the project team members, Sam Turvey, describes the fascination behind the resilient little mammal, saying "There is this concept of the solenodon being a 'living fossil', because it does seem to have retained certain, potentially ancient, features."

The biggest threat to the Hispania's wildlife and the solenodons, however, would come with the arrival of humans. When Columbus arrived to the island on one of his expeditions to the New World, he introduced to two overwhelming new threats--hungry rats and hungry men. The rodents devoured most of the island's small mammals while the sailors picked off the larger ones.

Solenodos, it turns out, were just big enough to stave off the rats and small enough to be overlooked by the humans. Turvey describes them as "Goldilocks," that is there size was "just right" to avoid extinction from the new threats. The BBC reports that out of the island's twenty-five native mammals, after settlers arrived, only a few solenodons and one other species survived.

Turvey his team are exploring caves on the island for bones of other mammals who once shared the island with the solenodos in hopes of learning more about why the latter survived while the former went extinct. Such clues couldn't come any earlier as these creatures, with such a long and rich lineage, continue to face threats from deforestation and development.

But for all the attention given to finding a way to protect the species, it's elusive nature means that chances are the team won't even get a peek at one. Solenodons are nocturnal animals, spending most of the day hidden in burrows, out of site--perhaps waiting for this most recent threat to pass.

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