Press Release

Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
Helen Taylor (415) 379-5128


Academy scientists hope to describe and protect a new species of sengi,
a small mammal whose closest relatives include elephants, sea cows, and aardvarks

SAN FRANCISCO (April 1, 2010) – Five dollars may sound like a small gift, but it could make a big difference to the fate of an intriguing mammal in the deserts of Namibia. The mammal in question - an insectivore known as a sengi - is most likely a new species, but scientists won't know for sure until they are able to collect and analyze DNA samples. In May of 2010, Academy scientists Galen Rathbun and Jack Dumbacher will travel to Namibia to do just this, documenting the sengi’s range and habitat in addition to collecting samples for analysis. Their goal is to provide an official name and description for this probable new species, a prerequisite for garnering protection for any animal. To fund this endeavor, the Academy has launched a "microdonation" campaign, which will allow wildlife aficionados around the world to donate as little as five dollars to support the expedition.

There is perhaps no group of animals with a more colorful history of misunderstood ancestry than sengis - small mammals that sport the spindly legs and speed of an antelope, the flexible snout and long tongue of an anteater, and the tail of a mouse. Early taxonomists hypothesized that sengis were most closely related to shrews, since both groups of animals slurp up insects in a similar fashion, so they named them "elephant-shrews." Later, scientists mistakenly grouped these unique animals with hoofed mammals, rabbits, and even primate relatives. However, recent DNA testing has revealed that sengis are actually part of an ancient group of African animals whose closest relatives include elephants, sea cows, and the aardvark.

While their place on the mammalian family tree is now widely accepted, Rathbun and Dumbacher uncovered a new mystery in sengi classification last year, when a colleague sent them a surprising specimen from Namibia. The specimen closely resembles other sengis from the area, but its coat provides a clue that it could be a new species. The Damaraland region of Namibia is known to house the smallest of the 17 described species of sengis, a teacup-sized animal called a round-eared sengi (Macroscelides proboscideus). Across its range, which extends from western South Africa and southern Botswana to western Namibia, the round-eared sengi's pelt color varies from grey or dark drown to light buff. Until recently, scientists thought that all of the sengis in Damaraland sported a light colored coat, but then Mike Griffin from Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism spotted a darker than expected individual, so he sent the specimen to Rathbun and Dumbacher for a closer look.

"Initial DNA sampling suggests that the dark specimen is quite genetically distinct," says Dumbacher, "but with only one specimen, it's hard to be sure." Rathbun and Dumbacher hope to confirm their diagnosis by collecting additional DNA samples from this elusive mammal during their upcoming trip to Namibia. They will spend three weeks in the harsh deserts of northwestern Namibia, where Griffin made his initial sighting. The region is so dry and isolated that the scientists will have to haul in all of the necessary supplies for their base camp, including their water. With just 80 gallons of water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning during their three-week stay, they’ll have to ration every drop.

"We are excited to get into the field and learn more about this unique mammal," says Rathbun, who has studied the ecology, social structure, and evolution of sengis for more than 30 years. "Is it a distinct species? Does it form monogamous pairs like its relatives? What is its preferred habitat? These are all questions we're hoping to answer, and the more we learn, the better equipped we’ll be to ensure the species is properly recognized and protected."

If the scientists confirm their suspicion that the sengi represents a new species, Rathbun will have the honor of naming yet another new member of the sengi group. In 2008, he and Italian colleague Francesco Rovero named and described a new species of giant sengi from Tanzania. The species, which is now officially called the gray-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis), lives in a remote forest in the Udzungwa Mountains and weighs about 700 grams (1.5 pounds) - more than 25 percent larger than any other species of giant sengi. The gray-faced sengi was the first new species of extant giant sengi to be discovered in more than 126 years. The holotype specimen, which defines the characteristics of the new species, is on display in the Academy's Extreme Mammals exhibit. The exhibit opens on April 3, 2010 and runs through September 12, 2010.

About the Microdonation Campaign:
Donations to the Academy's microdonation campaign for the Namibia expedition can be made through the California Academy of Sciences website (, through the Academy's Facebook Causes page (, or by texting "SENGI" to 20222. The goal for the campaign is to raise $10,000 by April 30, 2010. More information about the expedition is available at

About the California Academy of Sciences:
The California Academy of Sciences is the only institution in the world to combine a museum, aquarium, planetarium, and world-class research and education programs under one roof. This unique combination allows visitors to explore the depths of a Philippine coral reef, climb into the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest, and fly to the outer reaches of the Universe - all in a single visit. Designed by award-winning architect Renzo Piano, the building sets a new standard for sustainable architecture and recently received the highest possible rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It also provides a home for the Academy's research scientists, who launch dozens of expeditions each year to document biodiversity around the world, as well as the museum's 26 million research specimens - essential tools for comparative studies on the history and future of life on Earth.