Animals in Therapy | Deep Dive

Ever felt misunderstood?

Likely you have. Your experience may help you relate to the sengi: a furry mammal with a pointy head and mobile snout. It was because of this noticeably long nose that it got its other name: ‘elephant shrew’. Except that it’s not. A shrew, that is. Or even a rodent. Although, to the untutored eye, this critter is a pretty good imitation of one, if not both.

Lowdown on sengi

There are 19 species of elephant shrew. Rat-sized, with a long scaly tail, all are slim with long back legs and feet, which they use to jump obstacles as rabbits do. And they’re not slow. Able to run within an hour of birth, one study found the average maximum speed of these precocious toe-sprinters was 15 miles (25 km) per hour.

Sengis are found in at least six African countries. They live – and love – in faithful pairs in just about any habitat, producing one or two babies up to five times a year. And if, by chance, some unsuspecting rival wanders onto their scent-marked turf, they’ll know it! For sengis are territorial and, like Mixed Martial Arts fighters, will kick and snap at intruders to send them packing.

A case of mistaken identity?

But here’s the thing: long classified as shrews, recent DNA analysis has revealed that manatees (sea cows), aardvarks, and jumbo-sized elephants are, in fact, the sengi’s closest relatives. As it happens, this kind of misclassification based on a creature’s looks or characteristics is far from uncommon.     

In the late-eighteenth century, naturalists receiving specimens of the platypus from early European explorers to Australia thought the animal had been sewn together. How else to explain the fantastical combination of duckbill, otter feet and beaver tail? Or its ability to lay eggs? That was presumably before they settled on the duck as its closest relative and the platypus acquired its ‘duck-billed’ prefix. 

In fact, the closest relative of the platypus is the spiny, egg-laying echidna. Which, in soft-focus, could be mistaken for a hedgehog! It's a similar story of perplexity for pangolins, whose appearance meant naturalists misclassified them as relatives of anteaters and armadillos, rather than as linked to carnivores. Aye-ayes too, were misunderstood as rodents because of their perpetually growing front teeth. There’s no evolutionary link to squirrels; aye-ayes are primates. 

Elephant Shrew Phylogeny
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Known, and unknown, unknowns

Of course, it’s natural to think we know more than we do. But the joke’s on us. Other species, such as electric eels, are misnamed fish. Hippos – linked for decades to pigs – have been found to be close relatives of dolphins and whales. And consider the planet’s largest species: the much-studied blue whale, whose migration patterns still elude us.

Clearly, there’s much still to learn about the 1.3 to 2 million species we are aware of, many of whom baffle us. And your guess is as good as ours when it comes to the number of species yet to be identified in our amazingly biodiverse and often whimsical world: 8 million? One trillion?

Black and rufous elephant shrew - Tanzania
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Help secure the diversity of life

In other words, we barely understand our neighbours – the relationships between them or their complex interactions and dependencies. Given so little knowledge, we must protect and restore as much of the planet as possible. Doing so, we let future generations discover the full splendour and fundamental importance of other living beings on the planet. 

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