A Somali Sengi at the Assamo locality in Djibouti.

The long-nosed mammal called the Somali sengi thrives in the deserts of Djibouti. Credit: Steven Heritage

Zoology

An elephant-nosed creature ‘lost to science’ was living just next door

The Somali elephant shrew, unseen by scientists for decades, is well-known to people in Djibouti’s rocky deserts.

Do not mourn the Somali sengi, also known as the Somali elephant shrew. It was considered ‘lost to science’ after decades without any sightings being recorded in the scientific literature, and was known to biologists only from museum specimens. But the tiny insect-eating mammal — with its long tufted tail, trunk-like nose, and adorable large, dark, liquid eyes — is apparently doing fine.

The Somali sengi (Galegeeska revoilii), one of 20 sengi species, was previously thought to be endemic to its namesake nation. But now the species has been found in the neighbouring Republic of Djibouti, according to Steven Heritage at Duke University’s lemur centre in Durham, North Carolina, and his colleagues.

After co-author Houssein Rayaleh at Association Djibouti Nature in Djibouti City saw sengis in the area, the team put out 1,259 live traps in Djibouti, and successfully trapped 8 Somali sengis. Local people aided the expedition with information about the creature’s abundance and preferred habitats — a reminder that vast troves of biological and ecological knowledge reside outside the scientific enterprise.