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Tiny Elephant Shrew Resurfaces After More Than 50 Years On Lost Species List

The Somali sengi, a relative of aardvarks and elephants, has been spotted by researchers not in Somalia, but in neighboring Djibouti.
The Somali sengi, a relative of aardvarks and elephants, has been spotted by researchers not in Somalia, but in neighboring Djibouti.

For more than 50 years, the mouse-size Somali sengi was thought to be a lost species.

Turns out, it wasn't.

Researchers recently spotted the Somali sengi, a kind of elephant shrew, not in Somalia — but in neighboring Djibouti.

"It's a teeny, tiny relative of an aardvark and an elephant that's the size of a mouse," Steven Heritage, a Duke University Lemur Center researcher who traveled to Djibouti to look for the Somali sengi, told NPR.

It has a pointy nose and large, adorable eyes and can fit in the palm of your hand.

"In science we call them charismatic microfauna, which in lay-speak translates to cute little animal," Heritage said.

Heritage is quick to credit Djiboutians, including scientists, for the rediscovery of the Somali sengi. Though the Global Wildlife Conservation considered the creature a lost species, people in East Africa easily recognized the animal when Heritage showed them pictures of it. Heritage and his team set a live trap and, he says, it wasn't long before a Somali sengi wandered into it.

Houssein Rayaleh, an ecologist from Djibouti, is part of the research team that identified the Somali sengi.

Ralayeh says he hopes that observing and tracking the Somali sengi will help bring more conservation efforts to the country.

"Now, the international community will have an eye on our biodiversity," he says.

Researchers last documented the tiny Somali sengi in 1968. And there's a lot more to learn.

"We know now that it is for sure a rock-dwelling Sengi," Heritage said. "We know that it has foot-drumming behavior as one of its communication behaviors. So we have some basic knowledge now."

While researchers are still discovering basic facts about the Somali sengi, the creature has been on Earth for eons.

"It goes back at least 45 million years, possibly much longer," Heritage said. The Somali sengi predates lions, giraffes and zebras as well as many other animals that didn't appear until about 20 million years ago.

It can now be taken off the list of lost species.

Lisa Weiner contributed to this report.

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