New species of mammals aren’t found very often, but reader Roo called my attention to one in the Torygraph’s “Pictures of the day” showing a new species of what’s called a “shrew”. But it isn’t really a shrew, it’s a sengi, and can you believe this (from the California Academy’s press release)? (My emphasis):
Sengis are restricted to Africa and, despite their small size, are more closely related to elephants, sea cows, and aardvarks than they are to true shrews. Found in a remote area of Namibia, on the inland edge of the Namib Desert at the base of the Etendeka Plateau, scientists believe this new species went undescribed for so long because of the challenges of doing scientific research in such an isolated area. Yet it is precisely this isolation, and the unique environmental conditions in the region, that have given rise to this and other endemic organisms.
From the Cal Academy’s webpage on sengis:
Few mammals have had a more colorful history of misunderstood ancestry than the elephant-shrews, or sengis. Most species were first described by Western scientists in the mid to late 19th century, when they were considered closely related to true shrews, hedgehogs, and moles in the order Insectivora. Since then, there has been an increasing realization that they are not closely related to any other group of living mammals, resulting in biologists mistakenly associating them with ungulates, primates, and rabbits. The recent use of molecular techniques to study evolutionary relationships, in addition to the more traditional morphological methods, has confirmed that elephant-shrews represent an ancient monophyletic African radiation. Most biologists currently include the elephant-shrews in a new supercohort, the Afrotheria, which encompasses several other distinctive African groups or clades. These include elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes (the Paenungulata); the aardvark and elephant-shrews, and the golden-moles and tenrecs
This species, in the genus Macroscelides, is described in a new paper in the Journal of Mammalogy (reference below), whose first author is Jack Dumbacher. Jack is one of our U of C grad-student alumni who in his Ph.D. thesis described the world’s first aposematic (and toxic) bird, the hooded pitohui.
The sengi’s arid habitat (photo from the paper):
The species was identified originally by morphological traits, but the journal also shows that it’s quite distinct by molecular analysis of two mitochondrial and two nuclear genes:
While collecting and examining sengi specimens from southwestern Africa, Drs. Jack Dumbacher and Galen Rathbun encountered an unusual specimen collected in the remote northwestern region of Namibia that differed in appearance from any of the museum specimens that they had examined previously. The specimen was significantly smaller, had rust-colored fur, a large, hairless gland on the underside of its tail, and lacked dark skin pigment. Preliminary genetic analysis also showed important differences between this specimen and close relatives.
Suspecting they may have encountered a new species, the team—including research colleagues in Namibia, Timothy Osborne (California Academy of Sciences), Michael Griffin (Republic of Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism), and Seth Eiseb (National Museum of Namibia), all co-authors on the paper—set out on nine expeditions between 2005-2011. In total, the team collected 16 specimens for comparative analyses.
Nine expeditions to find this thing! That’s a lot of dough; I hope it’s sufficiently interesting. There are 19 previously described species of sengis, and you can find a gallery of all of them here.
How many new species of mammal are discovered in the wild each year? Put your guess below, and no cheating!
Dumbacher, J. et al. 2014. A new species of round-eared sengi (genus Macroscelides) from Namibia. J. Mammalogy 95(3):443–454,