Discoveries, just like inspiration, can happen in the most unusual of places. Some credit their time on the toilet for certain strokes of genius. Discoveries on the toilet are perhaps rarer but not impossible. For example, Juan de Roux (likely) took the first ever picture of a living Colombian weasel, just as the little mammal perched on a toilet seat.
The picture was taken in 2011, but the discovery only happened last year when de Roux, who is an architect/designer and a professor at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Colombia, uploaded the image to the citizen science project iNaturalist and labeled it as a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). He wasn’t convinced about his identification of the animal and consulted papers on a potential better classification.
A paper, published in Mammalian Species in 2014 by Hector Ramirez and Bruce Patterson, describes the Colombian weasel (Mustela felipei), who up to that point had never been photographed alive. Ramirez together with de Roux have now published another paper based on the new images.
“At first I was a bit skeptical, reading that this is a rare species. But could see in the holotype's pelt a black oval spot in the ventral part that simply made this species unmistakable, so I corrected my id in iNat, and then the observation started getting starred,” de Roux said in an iNaturalist blog.
Little is known about this animal. It's possibly one of the smallest carnivores in the world at only 22 centimeters (8.7 inches) in length, not including the tail. It is South America’s smallest weasel and it is endemic to the Andes. All that is known about the species comes from just six dead specimens found in five locations in Colombia and Ecuador. No surprise, it is considered the continent’s rarest carnivore.
“I still cannot believe I was lucky to see this animal and take these pics,” de Roux said. “Needless to say, I never saw one of these again. But at least I can gladly assure that this area has remained basically unaltered for the past decade, so it has to be out there. Perhaps this animal is not so rare, but the lack of knowledge about it, combined with its secretive nature, contribute to its rarity.”
This story once again reveals the power and importance of citizen science in making new discoveries.