Elephant Shrew Lost To Science For 50 Years Found Alive And Kicking

It's easy being on the run when you're clocking a running speed of 30mph. Steven Heritage, Duke University Lemur Center

The aptly named elephant shrew has pulled off the comeback of the (half) century after being found alive and kicking in the Horn of Africa having been lost to science for 50 years. The Somali sengi, as it’s also known, is a tiny mouse-sized shrew with a wibbly nose that inspired its common name, and it hasn’t been spotted since 1968. The incredible discovery was published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Clocking a running speed of around 30 kilometers per hour (~19 miles per hour), it’s perhaps unsurprising that this speedy shrew has been on the lamb for so long. It was finally tracked down thanks to a team who set out to find it in 2019 following tips from Djibouti where locals said it had been spotted. Armed with local knowledge and an eye for suitable elephant shrew habitats, they were able to lure in the fugitives with an irresistible recipe of peanut butter, oatmeal, and yeast.

“It was amazing,” said Steven Heritage, a research scientist at Duke University, in a press release from Global Wildlife Conservation. “When we opened the first trap and saw the little tuft of hair on the tip of its tail, we just looked at one another and couldn’t believe it. A number of small mammal surveys since the 1970s did not find the Somali sengi in Djibouti – it was serendipitous that it happened so quickly for us.”

After setting 1,000 traps, the team found 12 shrews, and DNA analysis revealed that the Somali sengis were in fact a new genus, most closely related to other sengi species in Morocco and South Africa. The discovery moves them from the Elephantulus genus to a newly named genus called Galegeeska. That they have dispersed so far despite traditionally keeping to modestly sized habitats remains a mystery for the researchers to puzzle over.

When on the run from scientists, it seems looking like a rock only gets you so far. Houssein Rayaleh, Association Djibouti Nature

The Somali sengi is one of Global Wildlife Conservation’s (GWC) 25 most wanted lost species and is the least well-known of the world’s 20 sengi species. Before now it was known to science from just 39 individuals, which were captured hundreds of years ago and kept in museums. Now, it can be removed from the GWC’s 25 most wanted list, providing hope for the species that remain, including Jackson’s climbing salamander, Wallace’s giant bee, the velvet pitcher plant in Indonesia, and the silver-backed "fanged deer".

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