Elephant shrew reality stranger than fiction…

Reality has an odd way of imitating art, or in this case parody. Forty years ago, “The Snouters“, a subtle parody of Darwin’s musings was published. Instead of Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos, The Snouters described the species radiation of a diverse mammalian order of “snouters” — ratlike critters defined by their highly evolved snouts.

The Snouters’ fictitious Dr. Harald Stümpke described and illustrated these outlandish critters, some with noses like Jimmy Durante’s famous schnozz, others with probosci like catapults and yet others like suction cups. But all were so outrageous that one could not imagine nature creating such an animal even at its most whimsical.

Well, guess again because nature has come very close with Rhynchocyon udzungwensis, the giant elephant shrew, discovered in Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains by Francesco Rovero of the Trento Museum of Natural History and confirmed last month by Galen Rathbun of the California Academy of Sciences. Officially called the “grey-faced sengi,” the giant elephant shrew is the size of a squirrel — and though it’s nose is not prehensile like the snouters, Rathbun notes that the sengis’ schnoz is “quite flexible.”

The giant elephant shrew is a poignant reminder of just how little we know of our planet, and how important it is to preserve wild places like the Udzungwa Mountains. The Snouters reportedly disappeared when their Pacific island sank beneath the waves after a nuclear test. The sengi is only slightly less at risk, living in two isolated populations in a fragmented forest preserve. Lets hope that news of the discovery will help build support for these wonderful critters and the forests that shelter them.