Image courtesy Zoological Society of London
Published September 20, 2010
Sporting dark red thighs and a black behind, a two-foot-long (0.6-meter-long) elephant shrew recently spotted in Kenya may be a new species, scientists say.
If confirmed, the colorful creature would be the 18th known species of elephant shrew, all of which are native to Africa.
Biologist Grace Wambui stumbled across the odd animal while searching for the rare golden-rumped elephant shrew in the mostly inaccessible Boni-Dodori coastal forest in northeastern Kenya.
Wambui, a fellow at the Zoological Society of London's EDGE of Existence program, didn't recognize the new elephant shrew's markings.
After observing the mystery animal, Wambui and colleagues set up a network of camera traps, which were triggered by the elephant shrews' heat and movement. To date, the cameras have snapped more than 20 pictures of the elusive beasts, which appear to be active during daylight hours.
"The new animal has grizzled, yellow-brown sides, shoulders, and back; maroon thighs; and a jet-black lower rump," said team member Raj Amin, a conservation biologist at the zoological society.
Elephant shrews are divided into two categories: giant elephant shrews and small, soft furred elephant shrews. The newfound creature is similar in size to the other four known giant elephant shrews. (Related: "Largest Elephant Shrew Discovered in Africa.")
The animal has big ears and eyes, thin legs, and a long, wiry tail. The mammals most likely live on a diet of insects, foraging under the leaf litter of the forest floor with their long noses.
The scientists also think they may have seen nests belonging to the species.
"The nests were usually well hidden beneath trees and shrubs, and [were] comprised of shallow depressions layered with dead leaves to make a small raised bump on the forest floor," Wambui said.
"New" Elephant Shrew Already at Risk?
First described formally by scientists in the 19th century, elephant shrews were originally thought to be relatives of shrews, small, insect-eating mammals that resemble mice but are not true rodents.
Research later revealed that elephant shrews have more in common genetically with a group of African mammals that includes elephants, aardvarks, and golden moles. (Related: "Ancient Elephant Ancestor Lived in Water, Study Finds.")
To confirm that the newfound elephant shrew is a new species, the scientists will need to collect DNA samples and carry out genetic analysis.
But improved security has opened up the region, and Wambui and Amin are now concerned that the possibly new elephant shrew's habitat will be threatened by forest clearance and illegal logging activities.
"Protection is crucial," Amin said, "and a management plan needs to be developed with all the key stakeholders."
Take a peek at polar bears playing, swimming, and sleeping in their changing habitat.
By winning protection for their boreal forest, indigenous Canadians help slow global warming.
Our correspondent reports from a Norwegian research ship that's drifting inside the Arctic ice cap, gathering data needed to predict its future.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.