When Francesco Rovero first saw the image captured by one of his automatic cameras in a remote Tanzanian forest, he knew he’d never seen anything quite like it.
It was the size of a small dog, covered in orange and gray fur, and had a long snout like an elephant. Its markings and general appearance suggested it was a member of the elephant-shrew family, called a sengi in Swahili. Today, the Journal of Zoology reports that Rovero discovered a new species of giant elephant-shrew.
Rovero of Italy's Trento Museum of Natural Sciences was documenting elusive forest animals deep in the Ndunlulu Forest of Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains. The Udzungwas are part of a series of ancient and isolated mountains stretching from southern Kenya to south-central Tanzania. Rovero's cameras captured lions and antelope, as he expected, but this was something different.
Rovero sent the photos to Galen Rathbun of the California Academy of Sciences for identification, who confirmed that the colorful animal appeared to be a new species.
With funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the National Geographic Society, and Trento Museum of Natural Sciences, they embarked on a two-week expedition with a team of colleagues to confirm the discovery. The expedition team captured four specimens of the animal.
"This new discovery highlights how exceptionally important the Udzungwa Mountain rain forests are, and how little we know about them," Rovero said.
The new species, named the gray-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis), weighs about 1.5 pounds, 25 percent larger than any other member of the elephant-shrew family. It is known to exist in only two groups in a 115-square-mile area of this largely unexplored forest.
Scientists report that its relatives include elephants, manatees, and the aardvark. In recent years, a number of other new species have been discovered here, including the Udzungwa partridge, a monkey known as the kipunji, and several amphibians and reptiles.
"This is one of the most exciting discoveries of my career," said Rathbun of the California Academy of Sciences. "It is the first new species of giant elephant-shrew to be discovered in more than 126 years. From the moment I first lifted one of the animals into our photography tent, I knew it must be a new species."
DISCUSSION: Zoologist Francesco Rovero took questions from dozens of curious readers about his discovery. Check out what else he had to say about the elephant-shrew.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a global program that provides grants to nongovernmental organizations and other private sector partners to protect Earth’s biologically richest and most endangered areas. As one of the founders, CI administers the program. The other partners are the French Development Agency, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.