NUTS: Squirrel is dead ringer for Pokémon character

Pokemon (trademark of Nintendo)
Pokemon (trademark of Nintendo)

The hunt is on for an elusive scaly-tailed rodent that is a look-alike for Rattata.

The Zenkerella insignis has been described as "the ultimate Pokémon" by scientists as it has never been spotted alive.

But they say the discovery of three recently deceased specimens hint at how the "living fossil" has evolved over the past 49 million years.

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The mysterious creature from central Africa is among the least studied of all living mammals.

But with its widespread whiskers and a tail almost as long as its body, it bears a distinctive likeness to purple-furred Pokémon Rattata.

The most recent records of Zenkerella living in the wild dates back to two decades ago.

So wannabe Pokémon masters could have their work cut out adding this rare rodent to their team.

But scientists say the rodents are most likely to turn up in the middle of the night in deep jungles in central Africa.

Only 11 specimens of the species are curated in museums around the world, with the three new rodents bringing the count to 14.

Hunters caught the three specimens in ground snares near the southern tip of Bioko Island, off the west coast of Africa.

Villagers said they caught about one or two Zenkerella in traps a year, but the meat was not tasty.

Professor Erik Seiffert, from the University of Southern California, said: "Zenkerella could be seen as the ultimate Pokémon that scientists have still not been able to find or catch alive

"After all, it probably only shows up in the middle of the night, deep in the jungles of central Africa, and might spend most of its time way up in tall trees where it would be particularly hard to see."

In a study, published in the Journal PeerJ, researchers analysed the Zenerella's DNA for the first time. They took cells from the specimens' cheek swabs and compared their DNA with large samples of other rodents, using online database GenBank.

Their results revealed that Zenkerella is actually a very distant cousin of two scaly-tailed squirrels, with webbing between their legs and elbows that allow them to glide from tree to tree. This meant the Zenkerella, who cannot glide, will be placed in the newly named Zenkerellidae family.

And of about 5,400 mammal species alive today, only Zenkerella insignis and five others are the "sole surviving members of ancient lineages" dating back 49 million years ago or more.

Professor Seiffert said: "It's an amazing story of survival. In strong contrast to Zenkerella, all of these five other 'sole survivor' mammal species have been fairly well studied by scientists.

"We are only just starting to work on basic descriptions of Zenkerella's anatomy."

But the lack of knowledge about the rodent's life history has led to the International Union for Conservation of Nature to categorise the species as "least concern" because it is thought to be distributed over a broad region in central Africa.

Co-author and PhD researcher Drew Cronin from Drexel University, Pennsylvania, said: "This rating belies the fact that threats such as habitat loss and degradation are intense and widespread in central Africa.

"Zenkerella may be under greater threat. "The more information and visibility for the species that we can generate, the more likely we are to facilitate the research and conservation attention a unique species like Zenkerella requires."