Small Elephant-Relative Spotted in Namibia
Forget marsupials, the world's strangest group of mammals are actually those in the Afrotheria order. This superorder of mammals contains a motley crew that at first glance seems to have nothing in common: from the biggest land animals on the planet—elephant—to tiny, rodent sized mammals such as tenrecs, hyraxes, golden moles, and sengis. But there's more: the group even includes marine mammals, such as dugongs and manatees. Finally, they also include as a member the most evolutionary-distinct mammal on the planet: the aardvark. While these species may seem entirely unrelated—and many were long shuffled into other groups—decades of genetic and morphological research now point to them all springing from the same tree. Last week, though, scientists announced the newest, and arguably cutest, member of Atrotheria: the Etendeka round-eared sengi.
Described in the most recent edition of the Journal of Mammology, the Etendeka round-eared sengi (Macroscelides micus) was discovered in the northwest corner of Namibia.
"It...might seem remarkable that Macroscelides micus escaped detection for more than 100 years since the first sengis were being described, but it occurs in a small and remote arid area that is difficult to access and has only recently been explored by small-mammal biologists," the authors of the paper write.
It is distinguished from other sengis first by its size: the new species is the smallest sengi yet recorded. Only 19 centimeters long (7.5 inches), the new mammal weighs just 28 grams (0.9 ounces), or less than a dozen U.S. pennies. Moreover, the species is distinct for a hairless gland under its tail, pink-hued skin (as opposed to dark skin), and a rusty-colored fur which helps it blend into the reddish soil of the dry Etendeka Plateau.
"Genetically, Macroscelides micus is very different from other members of the genus and it's exciting to think that there are still areas of the world where even the mammal fauna is unknown and waiting to be explored," said co-author John Dumbacher, the Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy at the California Academy of Science.
Sengis, of which there are currently 19 known species, are also called as elephant shrews due to the fact that they sport small trunks. Ironically, they were given this name prior to the discovery that are actually related to elephants, not shrews.
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Sengi image via Shutterstock.