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Elusive Elephant Shrew discovered in Kenyan forest

Date Published: 22 Sep, 2010
Elusive Elephant Shrew discovered in Kenyan forest

A giant elephant-shrew

A giant elephant-shrew species recently discovered in a remote African forest may be new to science, Conservationists researching the biodiversity of the Boni-Dodori forest on the coast of north-eastern Kenya were thrilled to capture pictures of the bizarre mammal.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) photographed the mystery animal and believe it may be a new species of giant sengi, otherwise known as an elephant-shrew (Macroscelidea). Camera traps were set up in the remote forest after Grace Wambui, a fellow of ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme spotted an elusive elephant-shrew she didn’t recognise in the area.

There are currently only 17 species of elephant-shrew known to science, all endemic to Africa. The animals are more closely related to elephants than shrews, despite being relatively small creatures, and got their peculiar name because of their long, flexible, trunk-like nose. ZSL senior field conservation biologist, Dr Rajan Amin said: “This is an important discovery. The whole team was very excited to capture pictures of this mammal.

“We will continue our work to document the forest’s rich biodiversity and to determine if this is a new species of elephant-shrew. The findings of our study are highlighting the conservation importance of these unique coastal forests.”
Sam Andanje from the KWS said: “Prior to our study, the biodiversity of the Boni-Dodori forests was poorly understood as a result of limited access due to security problems and poor infrastructure.
“This discovery has underlined the conservation significance of these isolated forests. Unfortunately, they are highly threatened by on-going rapid coastal development and there is now an urgent need for an effective management plan.”
Galen Rathbun from the California Academy of Sciences said: “Once DNA samples have been collected, we look forward to conducting the genetic analysis required to determine whether or not this is indeed a new species of elephant-shrew. “With their ancient and often misunderstood ancestry, their monogamous mating strategies, and their charismatic flexible snouts, they are captivating animals. It is always exciting to describe a new species—anecessary precursor for ensuring that the animals are protected.”

Editorial Notes:
Elephant shrews or sengis are small insectivorous mammals native to Africa. They belong to the family Macroscelididae, so-named because they superficially resemble large shrews with long flexible snouts.

However, sengis actually belong to an ancient group of animals that evolved in Africa over 100 million years ago, and share a common ancestor with elephants, sea cows, hyraxes, aardvark, tenrecs and golden-moles (the super-cohort Afrotheria). There are 17 species split into two distinct groups, the giant sengis (containing four species in the genus Rhynchocyon), and the smaller, soft-furred sengis (thirteen species in three genera). Sengis are not common but can be found in almost any type of habitat, from desert to thick forest. They are relatively small animals which range from about ten to 30 centimeters in length, from just under 30g to over 700g. The giant sengis have distinctively patterned coats, which are reflected in their names e.g. golden-rumped sengi, black and rufous sengi. The animals’ “trunk” is used to search for food.

ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme ranks species according to their evolutionary distinctiveness and how globally endangered they are. There is currently an EDGE amphibians and EDGE mammals list.
EDGE supports in-country conservationists through the EDGE Fellowship scheme; Grace Wambui Ngaruiya, of the University of Nairobi, was researching the endangered golden-rumped sengi (EDGE Mammal number 46) with joint-support from an EDGE Fellowship and a grant from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. Grace’s surveys in the Boni forest led her to suspect that there was potentially a species unknown to science in the region, and flagged up the need for a thorough survey, which was carried out by the ZSL/KWS team as part of a wider biodiversity study in the area.

To read more about Grace’s work please visit: Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is a state corporation established under the Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act, 1989, CAP 376 of the Laws of Kenya and holds the national mandate to conserve,
protect and manage wildlife on behalf of the government and the people of Kenya. It is further enjoined to develop the required human resources, achieve financial self-sufficiency and encourage the support and participation of the people of Kenya in order that it may be able to effectively manage these resources which are of inestimable socio-cultural, aesthetic and scientific value. It is also charged with the
responsibility of establishing and managing National Parks, National Reserves and other protected Wildlife Sanctuaries. It conducts and co-ordinates research activities in the field of wildlife conservation and management and is the managing authority on behalf of the Government of Kenya for biodiversity related international protocols, conventions, treaties and agreements.

The California Academy of Sciences (CAS) is the only institution in the world to combine a museum,aquarium, planetarium, and world-class research and education programs under one roof. This unique combination allows visitors to explore the depths of a Philippine coral reef, climb into the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest, and fly to the outer reaches of the Universe—all in a single visit. It also provides a home for the Academy’s research scientists, who launch dozens of expeditions each year to document biodiversity around the world, as well as the museum’s 26 million research specimens—essential tools for comparative studies on the history and future of life on Earth.

National Museums of Kenya (NMK) is a state corporation established by an Act of Parliament, the Museums and Heritage Act 2006. NMK is a multi-disciplinary institution whose role is to collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage. This is for the purposes of enhancing knowledge, appreciation, respect and sustainable utilization of these resources for the benefit of Kenya and the world, for now and posterity. NMK’s mutual concern for the welfare of mankind and the conservation of the biological diversity of the East African region and that of the entire planet demands success in such efforts. In addition, NMK manages many Regional Museums, Sites and Monuments of national and international importance alongside priceless collections of Kenya’s living cultural and natural heritage.
The Afrotheria Specialist Group (ASG) the development of molecular techniques to explore the evolutionary relationships of animals has resulted in scientists gathering overwhelming support for a common African ancestry for several "odd" groups of mammals. This ancient radiation of African mammals, the Afrotheria, includes seven groups with little superficial resemblance to each other. The IUCN already has active groups that include elephants and sea cows, so when the ASG was formed in 2001, it only included the remaining five "forgotten" groups of mammals. The ASG deals with very few species - there is only one aardvark, 6 hyraxes, 17 sengis, 21 golden-moles, and 33 tenrecs. Many of these species have broad distributions in a wide variety of habitats, which means they are not particularly vulnerable to extinction (the aardvark, for example, and several hyraxes and sengis). The new Afrotheria Specialist Group must determine the status of many poorly known species and develop conservation strategies for those that are threatened, but it also needs to encourage research, improve coordination, and increase awareness of the importance of conserving these mammals and their habitats.

Editor’s Note
Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research at the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation overseas. For further information please visit  

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