The new addition to the sengi family was first spotted in 2005 when Francesco Rovero of the Trento Museum of Natural Sciences in Italy set up motion-sensing cameras in the forests of Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains. A photograph appeared of a creature with a long snout that no-one could identify. It was only a year later that a team expedition laid traps to catch live specimens of the creature they suspected was a new species. The traps they brought along were not really big enough for this giant among elephant shrews, so the team had to rely on the traditional hunting snares instead.
They finally managed to capture 4 of the animals and could confirm that this was indeed a new species of elephant shrew. The elephant-shrews are mammals of an order called Macroscelidea; from the Greek meaning “long legs”. Though they have some resemblance, they are actually not related to the shrew – a small mouse like animal found in many parts of the world. Scientists now prefer using the African name "sengi” to prevent the confusion with shrews.
Sengi form their own order of mammal and get their common name from their long elephant-like snout which they use to flick up tasty insects. Curiously, genetics has shown that sengi share a common ancestor (estimated to have lived about 100 million years ago) with golden-moles, the aardvark, manatees, dugongs, hyraxes ... and their namesake elephants!
Rhynchocyon udzungwensis, or gray-faced sengi, is the first new species of sengi to be discovered in more than a century. It is much larger than the other species, weighing in at 700g and measuring about 30cm in length. It has a distinctive grey colouring on its face and black lower rump.
There is a lot of pressure on the forests from surrounding villages and the sengi is known to be on the menu of local tribes people. The creature will probably join the endangered species list but is probably saved from extinction by its remote location in the heart of the mountain forests.
Udzungwa Mountains National Park
This exciting new species discovery was made in the remote Udzungwa Mountains National Park, a 1990 km2 area in south central Tanzania. Lohomero, its highest peak lies at 2,576 metres above sea level.
The name Udzungwa probably originates from a distortion of the name of one of the tribes living on the slopes of the Mountains, “wadsungwa”.
These mountains form part of the Eastern Arc, a mountain chain of isolated mountains running through Tanzania and southern Kenya. They are covered in spectacular forests which receive a lot of rain from the prevailing east wind carrying humid air from the Indian Ocean. The eastern arc is a "World Biodiversity Hotspot" which excites scientists with a large number of plant and animal species endemic to this part of the world.
The surrounding lands have been deforested by the pressure and needs of the people living in inland Tanzania. And so, the mountain forests have become islands in-between the arid heavily populated savannah land. These forest islands are home to over 30% of Tanzania’s plant and animal species. The much loved African violet, which graces homes all around the world, originates in these forests.
The region harbours at least 100 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and other vertebrates found nowhere else on earth, making it one of the densest concentrations of endemic species.
And ... the gray-faced sengi is the latest addition to the list of creatures known to call Udzungwa home.