A team of scientists working in Brazil has discovered something amazing: a tree-dwelling porcupine species that lives in one of the most endangered forest ecosystems on the planet.

The new species — which is new to science but has been hunted by locals for generations — has been given the scientific name Coendou speratus, which embraces both the local name for the animal ("coandru-mirim") and the Latin word "speratus," which means "hope." The new species joins six other known arboreal, prehensile-tailed porcupines in the genus Coendou.

Lead researcher Antonio Pontes, a professor of zoology at Brazil's Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, told the Associated Press that they chose the Latin word speratus "because we have to hope for its future."

Even with that hope, though, the new porcupine does face numerous threats. It lives in the Pernambuco Endemism Centre, a portion of the Brazilian Atlantic forest that Pontes and his co-authors describe in the journal Zootaxa (pdf preview) as "one of the most important known biodiversity hotspots," but which has lost at least 98 percent of its natural forest cover in the past several years. "People are responsible for logging, clear-cutting and setting fire to the forests," Pontes told AP. In addition, the porcupines are heavily hunted and their numbers are so low that they may face inbreeding problems.

Coendou speratus is covered in dark brown spines with a reddish tint on their tips. Its prehensile tail helps it navigate through the trees, where it feeds on seeds. Another, larger porcupine species — the Brazilian porcupine or C. prehensilis, which was already known to science — lives in the same trees at higher levels, so the two species do not compete for food.

Pontes told the AP that they set out to study the animals in the region by studying five centuries of literature. They found that many of the species described many years ago have already gone extinct. "One of the incredible things with this discovery is that this species of porcupine is not mentioned at all in the literature and remained unknown to science to date. Given the rate of destruction in this area...imagine how many species could have gone extinct before we even knew about them?"

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