University researcher takes exclusive video footage of new species of Giant Elephant shrew

Published: 1 February 2008 at 10:06

Related to sea cows and elephants, the shrew lives in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania the new mammal is the largest elephant-shrew discovered to date.

A new species of giant elephant-shrew has been discovered by a group of international zoologists including a Research Fellow based at Anglia Ruskin University’s Environmental Sciences Research Centre, in Cambridge, as well as a graduate of Anglia Ruskin who is now with Oxford Brookes University.

Conservation zoologist Trevor Jones captured on video, for the very first time, the new species of elephant-shrew in the wild foraging for insects on the forest floor of the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania. The video camera-trap film was captured after Trevor had helped coordinate surveys of this new mammal, which is found in only two forests. Remarkably, the new elephant-shrew was found in the same place where Trevor discovered one of the two known populations of the new and critically endangered kipunji monkey only three years ago.

Speaking about the new footage, Trevor said:

“This world-exclusive video is particularly exciting because it shows the new species of elephant-shrew behaving totally naturally in the wild, oblivious of the camera, with its beautiful and distinctive black and orange markings clearly on show. I set the camera along a path to which I knew this animal was faithful, but still, that it decided to forage right in front of the camera was a thrilling result.”

The discovery of a new elephant-shrew species is of outstanding scientific and conservation importance. Like shrews, these small furry mammals eat mostly insects. They were named elephant-shrews by early scientists not because they thought the animals were related to elephants but because of their long, flexible snouts.  Subsequent research has, however, shown that they are, in fact, more closely related to elephants than to shrews.  They are from a super-order called Afrotheria that evolved in Africa over 100 million years ago.  They are also closely linked to sea cows and the aardvark.

Up until recently 15 species of elephant-shrews, also called sengis to avoid confusion with actual shrews, were known to exist.  It was a team of scientists, led by Francesco Rovero, of the Trento Museum of Natural Sciences in Italy, and Galen Rathun, of the California Academy of Sciences, who confirmed the existence of the new species that lives only in two high-altitude forest blocks in the mountains of south-central Tanzanaia. This latest discovery about life on Earth will appear in the Journal of Zoology (published by Wiley-Blackwell and available online on January 31).

These colourful and intriguing animals were first caught on film in 2005 by Francesco Rovero, who set up automatic cameras inside the remote Ndundulu Forest in Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains, where he has worked researching the ecology and conservation of forest mammals over the last six years. Franceso said:

“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,”

Francesco then sent the photos to Rathbun who determined that the colourful animal appeared to be a new species. Rathbun claims that this is the most exciting discovery of his career as it is the first new species of giant elephant-shrew to be discovered in more than 126 years.

He said:

“From the moment I lifted one of the animals into our photography tent, I knew it must be a new species – not just because of its distinct colouring but because it was so heavy!”

Now named the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis), these animals weigh about 700g which is more than 25 percent larger than any other known sengi. 

The other three species in the genus Rhynchocyon are also rare due to restricted and fragmented forest habitats – one is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), another is listed as near-threatened and a third is on the vulnerable list.

The Udzungwa Mountains are part of a series of ancient and isolated mountain blocks of southern Kenya and south-central Tanania. The age, isolation and fragmented nature of the forests in these mountains have combined to produce high levels of biodiversity, including many species that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.  In recent years, a number of other new species have been found there including the kipunji, which has now been confirmed as a new genus of monkey, a forest-partridge, and several amphibians and reptiles.

The classification of the kipunji monkey was based on work conducted by Trevor Jones and his collaborator Tim Davenport from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

On the subject of the Udzungwa Mountains, Trevor added,

"The new discovery further highlights the extraordinary richness of Tanzania’s montane forests, which because of their water catchment value are also critically important for the people of Tanzania. Three months ago Ndundulu forest, where the elephant-shrew was found, was made into a National Nature Reserve by the Tanzanian government, continuing its hugely impressive commitment to conservation. Resources are scant however, and we in the international community have a responsibility to assist in making the Reserve work."

Other important collaborators during the discovery and subsequent surveys of the grey-faced sengi include Andrew Perkin of Oxford Brookes University (formerly of Anglia Ruskin University), David Ribble of Trinity University, and Nike Doggart, Charles Leonard and Ruben Mwakisoma of the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group. The surveys that led to the discovery of the new species were financed by the National Geographic Society, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the Trento Museum of Natural Sciences, Italy.