A newfound type of hedgehog is small, dark and adorable

Known as the eastern forest hedgehog, it ups the species count to 19

Mesechinus orienta hedgehog

This hedgehog was spotted in China’s Anhui province. It’s a member of the newly identified species Mesechinus orientalis.

Z. Shi et al/ZooKeys 2023

Meet the newest known species of hedgehog: the eastern forest hedgehog.

This small, spiky mammal lives in eastern China. Researchers first scooped one up in the province of Anhui in 2018. Originally, they thought the critter was a Hugh’s hedgehog (Mesechinus hughi). But that species is typically found some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) west of Anhui. Plus, DNA from the Anhui type didn’t quite match that of hedgehogs found farther west.

Intrigued, scientists collected six more hedgehogs from around Anhui and in Zhejiang. That last is another Chinese province, one to the southeast of Anhui.

The team compared the physical appearance and DNA of all of these animals with Hugh’s hedgehogs. The group also compared their hedgehogs with three other species in the Mesechinus genus.

That analysis confirmed the newly found hedgehogs were unique. Their official name is now Mesechinus orientalis. Its common name is eastern forest hedgehog. And its discovery brings the total number of known hedgehog species to 19.

Kai He and his colleagues shared their discovery November 28 in ZooKeys. He studies small mammals at Guangzhou University in China.

Kevin Campbell is a biologist who did not take part in the new research. He works at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Campbell is not surprised by the debut of the new species in China. “It’s a very large landscape. It’s a very varied landscape,” he says. “In the last 10 years or so, there’s been a huge increase in the number of species recognized from that area.”

The eastern forest hedgehog is about as long as a pencil and weighs about as much as a can of soda. That makes it smaller than any other Mesechinus species except Hugh’s hedgehogs. But the eastern forest type stands out from Hugh’s hedgehogs in a few ways. A couple of their teeth are shaped differently. Their skulls also have a slightly different shape at the temples than do Hugh’s hedgehogs.

Eastern forest hedgehogs boast the shortest spines of any species in their genus. These black-tipped prickles on the animals’ backs are just 1.8 to 2 centimeters (0.7 to 0.8 inch) long. That’s about half a centimeter shorter than the spines on Hugh’s hedgehogs.

“Mammals of China, especially small mammals, have not been well studied,” says He. For a long time, Mesechinus hedgehogs were thought to live in a fairly small area. They’d only ever been seen in northern China and nearby Mongolia and Russia.

That changed in 2007. Scientists that year spotted a group of hedgehogs living on China’s Mount Gaoligong. This was thousands of kilometers southwest of where other Mesechinus hedgehogs had been seen. In 2018, researchers identified the southwestern hedgehog as a new species. They named it Mesechinus wangi.

Finding a new Mesechinus species in eastern China has once again greatly expanded the known range of this genus. And knowing what small mammals live where is key to guiding efforts conserve these wild species, He says.

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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