Tiny Elephant Shrew Species Rediscovered After 50 Years

Thought lost to science, the Somali sengi elephant shrew has been rediscovered in the Horn of Africa.

Somali sengi
The Somali sengi hasn't been spotted by researchers since the 1970s.

 Steven Heritage

For about half a century, researchers had lost sight of the tiny Somali sengi, a mouse-sized elephant shrew. The speedy relative of an aardvark and an elephant had been lost to science as no researcher has spotted this sengi species since the late 1960s or early 1970s.

But the charismatic creature has been found in the Horn of Africa.

In early 2019, scientists set out to follow up on tips that some kind of sengis had been seen somewhere else in eastern Africa other than Somalia. The sightings had come from neighboring Djibouti.

Team members talked to locals and used information about habitat and shelter to find the best locations for traps. They baited them with a mix of whole rolled oats, unsweetened peanut butter, and yeast spread, then waited.

After setting and watching 1,200 live-traps, scientists found eight Somali sengis (as well as a whole slew of mice and gerbils) according to a Duke University press release.

"Our team of collaborating Djiboutian and U.S.-based scientists was formed explicitly to include experts in both Djibouti ecology and sengi biology — with hopes of improving our probability of success in documenting Djibouti's sengis," Steven Heritage, a Duke University Lemur Center researcher who traveled to Djibouti, tells Treehugger.

"While there are many species of sengis that inhabit countries throughout the continent, there are only a few that occur in the Horn of Africa, and we did not know which species might be in Djibouti. We were thrilled to learn that they are the Somali sengi and that we could report new data about this species, which has not been documented in the scientific literature for several decades."

The documentation of the team's findings was published in PeerJ.

Before this documentation, there was a single research study published in 1968 that included several Somali sengi specimens. But this recent study says researchers collected a few of the shrews up to five years later in the early 1970s. The Somali sengi hasn't been seen until now.

Now a Species of Least Concern?

Somali sengi
This Somali sengi was observed sunning itself by a wood pile. Houssein Rayaleh

The Somali sengi (Elephantulus revoilii) has huge, round eyes and a long, trunk-like nose which it uses to vacuum up ants. The local name for the animals is walo sandheer, where sandheer translates to "long nose." It is incredibly fast, known to travel nearly 20 miles per hour (30 kilometers per hour).

The Somali sengi is currently listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as "data deficient" because there hasn't been enough information to make an assessment on the species' risk of extinction.

Heritage says that the scientists have recommended to the IUCN Red List that the Somali sengi be changed to a species of "least concern" for several reasons. The species is widespread with an expanded geographic range. It's not only in northern Somalia, but also in Djibouti and maybe also in other countries in the Horn of Africa such as northern Ethiopia. The Somali sengi has extensive habitat that isn't fragmented and doesn't face threats like habitat disturbance from human activities, urban development, or agriculture.