Mouse-sized elephant shrew Somali Sengi rediscovered after 50 years in Africa, thanks to locals

The Somali Sengi, which can fit into the human palm, is monogamous and it has a long trunk-like nose, which helps it feed on insects

                            Mouse-sized elephant shrew Somali Sengi rediscovered after 50 years in Africa, thanks to locals
Somali Sengi (Steven Heritage, Duke University Lemur Center)

Reported missing for at least half a century, a mouse-sized elephant shrew — which was earlier known from museum records — has been rediscovered in the Horn of Africa or the Eastern part of the continent. Local sightings played a crucial role in helping experts find the "lost species".

The "lost species" called Somali Sengi or Somali Elephant-shrew was thought to inhabit Somali. Fifty years later, conservationists rediscovered them in the Republic of Djibouti, a neighboring country. The Sengi, which can fit into the human palm, is monogamous. It has a long trunk-like nose, which helps them feed on insects. These mammals are related to insect-eating aardvarks, elephants and marine mammals called manatees, according to Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC). The group works with local partners to protect wildlife and their habitats.

"Sengi biology is a science of passion," Steven Heritage, a research scientist at the Duke University Lemur Center who was involved in the search, said in a statement. "It takes somebody that’s motivated by a passion for sengis to go out looking for this lost species. They are not well-known animals, but when you see them, it’s impossible not to adore them," he added. The findings are a part of a new study.

Heritage and his colleagues, including the late Galen Rathbun from California Academy of Sciences and Houssein Rayaleh from Association Djibouti Nature, set out in their search for the lost species after receiving tips. Besides, Rayaleh believed he had spotted them in his country. "I knew that sengis were present in Djibouti and on many occasions observed them at sites in different regions of my country," he said, adding that he was unaware that the international scientific community considered the species lost.

"For us living in Djibouti, and by extension the Horn of Africa, 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," Rayaleh said. "For Djibouti, this is an important story that highlights the great biodiversity of the country and the region and shows that there are opportunities for new science and research here."

Djibouti fieldwork, in search of the Somali Sengi (Galen Rathbun, California Academy of Sciences)

Detective work

The team reached out to locals for more inputs. They identified the species from a series of photographs. And based on the information collected, they used a smelly concoction of peanut butter, oatmeal and yeast to lure them. They set up 1,259 traps at 12 locations, hoping they could capture and study them. They were successful in catching 12 sengis. 

"It was amazing," Heritage said. "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."

"This is a welcome and wonderful rediscovery during a time of turmoil for our planet, and one that fills us with renewed hope for the remaining small mammal species on our most-wanted list, such as the De Winton’s golden mole, a relative of the sengi, and the Ilin Island cloud runner," said Robin Moore, one of GWC’s Search for Lost Species program leads.

They analyzed the DNA of the sengi and found they were closely related to those that inhabit Morocco and South Africa. This places them in a newly named genus: Galegeeska. The finding has raised a question: how does an animal that does not leave an area the size of an average backyard disperse across great distances over time? The experts hope to solve this mystery in the future. 

The study is published in Peer J.

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