Scientists Discover New Species of Giant Elephant-Shrew

1/31/2008

Related to sea cows and elephants, it lives in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania

Arlington, VA � A small furry mammal with an elephant-like snout and distinctive gray face was discovered by a  team of scientists from Italy's Trento Museum of Natural Sciences and the California Academy of Sciences. Related to the aardvark, sea cow and elephant, the new species is found only in two high-altitude forest blocks in the mountains of south-central Tanzania. The discovery will be announced in the February 4 issue of The Journal of Zoology published by Wiley-Blackwell.

Like shrews, these mammals eat mostly insects. Early scientists named them elephant-shrews not because they thought the animals were related to elephants but because of their long, flexible snouts. Ironically, recent molecular research has shown that they are more closely related to elephants than to shrews. Until recently, only 15 species of elephant-shrews, also called sengis to avoid confusion with true shrews, were known to science.

The new sengi was first caught on film in 2005 by Trento Museum's Francesco Rovero, who set up automatic cameras inside the remote Ndundulu Forest in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains, where he has been conducting research on ecology and conservation of forest mammals over the last six years.

"When I retrieved the cameras and went through the photos I immediately spotted an elephant-shrew that looked very different from the known species, and I realized that we might have found something really exciting," said Rovero. He then sent the photos to Galen Rathbun of the California Academy of Sciences, who determined that the colorful animal appeared to be a new species.

Financed by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the National Geographic Society, and the Trento Museum, the team embarked on a two-week expedition in 2006 to confirm the discovery. The traps they had brought with them turned out to be too small for the surprisingly large sengis. However, with perseverance and the help of some traditional twine snares, they were able to capture four animals and make 40 observations, confirming the presence of a new species. Its unique features include a distinctive gray face and a jet-black lower rump, as well as a large body size. So far, the new giant sengi is known to exist in only two populations that cover about 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) of forest in Tanzania.

"This is one of the most exciting discoveries of my career," said Rathbun, who has studied the ecology, social structure, and evolution of sengis for more than 30 years. "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 � not just because of its distinct coloring, but because it was so heavy!" The new species, named the gray-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis), weighs about 700 grams (1.5 pounds) or 25 percent larger than any other known sengi.

The Udzungwa Mountains are part of a series of ancient and isolated mountain blocks stretching from southern Kenya to south-central Tanzania. The age, isolation and fragmented nature of the forests in these mountains have combined to produce high levels of biodiversity, including many species found nowhere else. In recent years, a number of other new species have been found there, including the Udzungwa partridge, the Phillips' Congo shrew, a new genus of monkey known as the kipunji, and several amphibians and reptiles. "This new discovery highlights how exceptionally important the Udzungwa Mountain rain forests are, and how little we know about them," says Rovero.

The newly discovered gray-faced sengi is just one of many species in need of protection in the Udzungwa Mountains, which serve as an important dry-season refuge for many animals from adjacent areas. A recent survey suggests that the few remaining wildlife corridors linking the mountains to surrounding protected areas are critically threatened, and will be lost by the end of 2009 without intervention. Recent conservation efforts have resulted in the establishment of the Kilombero Nature Reserve, raising hopes for enhanced long-term protection of some important forests, including Ndundulu where the new sengi was found. Still, without more funding, the legal protection afforded by the reserve will be difficult to enforce. "We hope that new discoveries like ours will help bolster efforts to conserve this spectacular ecosystem," says Rovero.

Important collaborators during the discovery and subsequent surveys of the gray-faced sengi include Andrew Perkin of Oxford Brookes University, Trevor Jones of Anglia Ruskin University, David Ribble of Trinity University, and Nike Doggart, Charles Leonard, and Ruben Mwakisoma of the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group.

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Photos and video clips are available.

Media Contacts:

For international media:

Susan Bruce
International Media Director
Conservation International
Email: sbruce@conservation.org
Phone: 1-703-341-2471

For U.S. media:

Marshall Maher
U.S. Media Director
Conservation International
Email: mmaher@conservation.org
Phone: 1-703-341-2623

Stephanie Stone
California Academy of Sciences
Email: sstone@calacademy.org
Phone: 1-415-321-8119

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) aims to dramatically advance conservation of the Earth's biologically richest and most threatened areas in developing countries. A fundamental goal is to ensure that civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. CEPF is a joint initiative of Conservation International, the French Development Agency, the Global Environment Facility, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Government of Japan, and the World Bank. CEPF is investing US$7 million in conservation projects in the Eastern Arc and Coastal Forests of Tanzania and Kenya. CEPF's investment supports civil society groups such as nongovernmental organizations, community-based organizations and the private sector. Since 2003, the program has funded 84 projects that aim to improve the conservation of the biodiversity and natural resources found in the region, as well as supporting initiatives that improve the livelihoods of communities living close to these forests. This portfolio is helping to conserve more than 300 threatened species known to exist within these forests.

The California Academy of Sciences is one of the world�s preeminent natural history museums and is an international leader in scientific research about the natural world. Founded in 1853, the Academy is home to Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium, as well as 20 million scientific specimens from around the world. Academy scientists conduct research in 11 fields of study that span the natural sciences. A record-setting new home for the Academy is currently under construction in San Francisco�s Golden Gate Park. Expected to be the first museum to earn a LEED Platinum certification, the new Academy will be topped with a 2.5-acre living roof and will employ a wide range of energy-saving materials and technologies. This major new initiative builds on the Academy's distinguished history and deepens its commitment to advancing scientific literacy, engaging the public, and documenting and conserving Earth�s natural resources. The new building will open in the fall of 2008.

The Tanzania Forest Conservation Group is a Tanzanian national nongovernmental organization whose mission is to conserve and restore the biodiversity of globally important forests in Tanzania for the benefit of the present and future generations. For the last 20 years, TFCG has been actively involved in promoting the conservation of the Udzungwa Mountain forests where the new elephant-shrew has been discovered. TFCG�s Research Officer, Charles Leonard, was a part of the team researching and describing the new species.

The Museo Tridentino di Scienze Naturali (MTSN) is located in Trento, Italy. Founded in 1922, it is an institution dedicated to conservation, education and research in natural sciences. The mission of the MTSN is to promote knowledge and conservation of the mountainous environment through the transfer of up-dated information to a wide audience. The MTSN promotes both its own research activity and the connections with national and international universities and research centers. MTSN has been involved for about 10 years in biodiversity research and conservation activities in the moist forests of Tanzania (Eastern Arc Mountains), and especially in the Udzungwa Mountains.

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