New Mammal Species Found In Kenya, Surprisingly Related To Elephants

Tree hyrax from Taita Hills, Kenya. Hanna Rosti

New research published in the journal Diversity describes what could well be a new mammalian species found in the Taita Hills of Kenya. Hailing from the University of Helsinki, the team of scientists on the tree hyrax's case have revealed insights into the animal which was previously unknown to science, including recordings of their bizarre and unique vocalizations which sound unlike any other known species.

The tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax sp) is a difficult animal to describe. Sitting somewhere between a large guinea pig and a small-eared rabbit, they are famous for their screaming strength (very on-brand for 2020) and can reach over 100 decibels when letting one loose. This new species vocalize using what the researchers describe as a “strangled thwack”, which can be heard reverberating around the Taita forest but have never been recorded elsewhere. Despite their appearance, the hyrax has a somewhat surprising closest living relative, as they are actually most closely related to elephants.

Very little is known about the diversity and ecology of these elusive animals. They are mostly active at night, where they roam the forest high in the tree canopy. Here, they practice their unique singing style which can go on for more than 12 minutes, composed of a series of syllables that are blended and repeated throughout their song. The new species of hyrax was discovered as it was proved in an analysis of their song that they sounded very distinct from other singing species.

"Tree hyraxes are almost completely unknown to science," said PhD student Hanna Rosti, who spent three months tracking and recording the hyraxes, in an email to IFLScience. "They are relatives to elephants and manatees. These tree hyraxes are incredibly vocal, and communicate with each other constantly.

"How they can climb in 50 meter tall trees with just three toes and quite round body is a mystery. They eat leaves, so their ecological niche is like koalas in Australia or sloths from South America."

A female Taita tree hyrax. Hanna Rosti

Scientists still have much to learn about these elusive and unusual creatures, but their security as a species is already a cause of concern for Rosti and her colleagues. 

"These tree hyraxes are living in two small forest fragments, that are only three square kilometers in size," she wrote. "This means that conservation of this species, including recognizing it scientifically, is in a great hurry."

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