Hopping around the forests and savannas of Africa, the lovable elephant shrews have stolen many a heart. Now, a team of researchers have finally resolved a long-standing suspicion within the sengi world. They found that one subspecies of giant sengi is actually distinct enough to be elevated to its own species (again).
The white-tailed subspecies of giant sengi (now Rhynchocyon stuhlmanni) has a convoluted past, to say the least. Initially discovered in the Congo basin and western Uganda in 1893, the endearing little mammals were originally described as a separate species. Fast-forward to the 1960s and the poor little thing lost its spot at the top, and was relegated to a subspecies status, falling in with the checkered sengi (Rhynchocyon cirnei) of East Africa.
After conducting genetic tests of all known full and subspecies of giant sengi, using both fresh individuals and specimens held in museums, the researchers from the California Academy of Sciences were able to build a full evolutionary tree of giant elephant shrews. They found that the genetic differences uncovered fully support the original designation of the white-tailed variety, bumping them back up to full species status.
“Sengis are long-legged, small mammals restricted to Africa that occupy a wide range of landscapes, from coastal deserts to mountain forests,” explains Dr Jack Dumbacher, co-author of the study published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, in a statement. “They are particularly fascinating to study because they've come to occupy unique ecological roles across diverse habitats, and have a distinct evolutionary history.”
True to their name – and their nose – the elephant shrew’s closest living relatives are indeed the giants that tower above them in the savanna, along with aardvarks and the slightly more surprising sea cows. The group is split into two types, the giant sengi on which this latest study was based and the adorably named soft-furred elephant shrews.
Despite their enchanting appearance, not that much is known about these rather fetching animals. In fact, this latest species is the fourth new species of elephant shrew to have been discovered in just a decade. If anything, the world could do with more species of sengi.