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Elephant-Like, Mouse-Sized Mammal Discovered in African Desert

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Jun 27, 2014 11:09 AM EDT
Macroscelides micus
A rather odd elephant-like, mouse-sized mammal was discovered in the Namib Desert of Africa, a California scientist involved in the groundbreaking find said Thursday. (Photo : Reuters)

A rather odd elephant-like, mouse-sized mammal was discovered in the Namib Desert of Africa, researchers from the California Academy of Sciences announced Thursday.

The new species of elephant shrew, or round-eared segni, called the Macroscelides micus, inhabits an ancient volcanic formation in the remote northwestern region of Namibia.

It is the third new species of sengi discovered in the wild in the past decade.

At first glance this elephant shrew may be mouse-like in appearance, but in fact it shares more of its DNA with larger mammals like elephants, as well as sea cows and aardvarks.

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Researchers accidentally stumbled upon this groundbreaking find while studying the shrew's cousins in southwestern Africa. Suspecting they may have encountered a new species, they set out on nine expeditions between 2005-2011 and collected a total of 16 specimens.

"Had our colleagues not collected those first invaluable specimens, we would never have realized that this was in fact a new species, since the differences between this and all other known species are very subtle," Jack Dumbacher from California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco said in a statement.

The only thing discerning this tiny creature from its close relatives is its size - they are only 19 centimeters long, the smallest of the sengis - and its rusty-colored fur, which helps the critter blend into its rocky surroundings. They were also found to have a hairless gland on the underside of the tail and lacked the dark pigment of other sengi.

The findings, published in the Journal of Mammalogy, floored scientists, who said the only visible link between the African elephant and this palm-sized shrew is its trunk-like nose.

A long snout is typical of various shrew species, which use it like anteaters do to search for and vacuum up ants and other insects for food.

Researchers suspect this species hadn't been realized before because it lives in such an isolated area, and yet, they say, such isolation and unique environmental conditions is what gives rise to such a unique animal.

"Genetically, Macroscelides micus is very different from other members of the genus and it's exciting to think that there are still small areas of the world where even the mammal fauna is unknown and waiting to be explored," Dumbacher said.

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