A man rediscovered the rarest South American carnivore after uploading a picture of it climbing on a toilet to a citizen science database.
The Colombian weasel is South America’s smallest weasel, and is known only from six specimens. It has never been photographed alive—until 2011, when it showed up at architect Juan M. de Roux’s parents’ house. This is the first confirmed record of the species during this century.
The weasel showed up in a bathroom beside de Roux’s parents’ country home in 2011, according to an iNaturalist blog post. The animal became trapped inside while the home’s floor was being replaced and its roofing refurbished. The weasel “moved frantically,” the authors wrote in their paper about the sighting, delivering a strong odor “sort of like urine or musky.” De Roux was able to snap photos of the weasel on his toilet and inside the bathroom. He left the door open for the weasel to escape.
De Roux is an amateur naturalist and takes plenty of photos of his findings, mainly snails. One of his friends convinced him to start using the iNaturalist app, which helps identify species from photos of sightings while offering the images to scientists for research use. He uploaded his weasel photos, initially identifying his find as the more common long-tailed weasel. But then, he stumbled upon a paper about the rarer Colombian weasel and wondered whether his toilet weasel was the same species.
The photo contained enough diagnostic characteristics, such as a spot its chest the same color as its back, to confirm that it was indeed a Colombian weasel, according to a paper documenting the report, published in the journal Therya.
“I thought it was extinct already because we’ve never seen the animal alive,” Héctor Ramírez-Chaves, study author from the Universidad de Caldas in Colombia, told Gizmodo. “It was crazy.” There simply isn’t a lot of information available on this species, he said.
De Roux’s house sits across the road from piece of high-altitude forest unaltered by human activities that extends into Colombia’s National Natural Park Farallones de Cali, according to the paper. Perhaps a larger population of the weasel lives there. This sighting expands the estimated range in which the weasel is thought to appear, according to the analysis.
I am an avid iNaturalist user and can vouch for the app—it’s useful for getting help identifying species of plants, insects, birds, and other animals, and experts will occasionally confirm your IDs or use your photos in their research. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, according to the app’s webpage.
Ramírez-Chaves told Gizmodo that he now hopes to find funding for a study on the Colombian weasel’s population. This study reaffirms how crucial the work of citizen scientists can be. If you’re especially lucky and observant, you too might find a rare species on your toilet one day.