Researchers working in the Horn of Africa have rediscovered the Somali elephant shrew, a tiny mammal with a “trunk” that was lost to science half a century ago.
The little creature looks like a cross between a mouse and a set of needle-nose pliers, with a long, thin trunk, a scaly tail, powerful hind legs and big, glassy black eyes that will melt your heart. It’s roughly the same size as a mouse but it’s actually a distant cousin to elephants, aardvarks and manatees, which helps explain the nose.
It can hop around at 30 kilometres per hour and it uses its long nose to suck up ants.
The Somali elephant shrew, also known as the Somali sengi or Elephantulus revoilii, was lost to scientists approximately 50 years ago, with only a few dozen preserved specimens left behind at museums around the world. It’s one of a few variants of the sengi on the Global Wildlife Conservation’s lost species list, which is used to help determine whether an animal has gone extinct.
Duke University researcher Steven Heritage and his team rediscovered the Somali sengi early last year, according to a news release from the school. Heritage’s team managed to catch eight live elephant shrews as part of the study, which was published on Tuesday. Several local groups helped identify the creature based on old photos and their own experiences.
“It was amazing,” Heritage told The Guardian. “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.”
He added that the discovery “happened so quickly for us.”
Heritage described the sengi’s rare physiology in a separate interview with CNN.
“The proportions of their hind limbs are closer to antelopes or gazelles than they are to other small mammals,” he said.
The mammals mate for life and pair off into very small territories.
“It’s really a fascinating combination of mammal traits that aren’t really found in any other order of mammals,” Heritage said.
Footage released by the Association Djibouti Nature, a non-profit that was part of the study, shows the elephant shrew scampering around on some rocks. Its little nose can be seen waving around on its own.
Houssein Rayaleh, who works at the Association Djibouti Nature, said the discovery was no surprise to him.
“For us living in Djibouti, we never considered the sengis to be ‘lost,’ but this new research does bring the Somali sengi back into the scientific community, which we value,” he said.
A few other variants of the elephant shrew are known to live in Central and Eastern Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. However, the Somali elephant shrew had not been seen since at least 1968.
Heritage’s work revealed that the creature might be more common than once thought, and that it is a species of “least concern” when it comes to the risk of extinction. The researchers also suggest that the creature should be renamed Galegeeska revoilii, because scientists appear to have mistaken it for a few other species over the years.
Heritage plans to return to the area in the future to study the sengis’ territory and mating habits.