Being still in the throes of editing and correcting the proofs for the new book (with the exception of compiling the index, the least enjoyable part of the whole process), I am particularly paranoid about fact-checking. I have one important (and, I'm sure, obvious) piece of advice: never believe anything you read or see in the press or on the web, without at least a triple-fact-check.
I intend, in tandem with the new book, to evolve this blog naturally into looking at topics arid as well as arenaceous, and, as I have been doing for the last few years, I keep an eye on the news. I just came across a wonderful illustration of the fact that there remains an awful lot new under the sun still to be discovered – on every scale. As I emphasise in the book, while our awareness of the complexity, diversity and value of the ecosystems of arid lands is a long way behind that of temperate and tropical environments, we are, nevertheless, redressing that imbalance on a daily basis. Take, for example, the just-announced discovery of a new species of desert mammal, the weird and wonderful Macroscelides micus:
Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences have discovered a new species of round-eared sengi, or elephant-shrew, in the remote deserts of southwestern Africa. This is the third new species of sengi to be discovered in the wild in the past decade. It is also the smallest known member of the 19 sengis in the order Macroscelidea. The team’s discovery and description of the Etendeka round-eared sengi (Macroscelides micus) is published this week in the Journal of Mammalogy.
Sengis are otherwise known as elephant-shrews because they have a snout that resembles an elephant’s trunk, but they are not shrews – indeed, remarkably, they are more closely related to elephants. But the fact is that they are in a class of their own. Again from the California Academy of Sciences:
Few mammals have had a more colorful history of misunderstood ancestry than the elephant-shrews, or sengis. Most species were first described by Western scientists in the mid to late 19th century, when they were considered closely related to true shrews, hedgehogs, and moles in the order Insectivora. Since then, there has been an increasing realization that they are not closely related to any other group of living mammals, resulting in biologists mistakenly associating them with ungulates, primates, and rabbits. The recent use of molecular techniques to study evolutionary relationships, in addition to the more traditional morphological methods, has confirmed that elephant-shrews represent an ancient monophyletic African radiation. Most biologists currently include the elephant-shrews in a new supercohort, the Afrotheria, which encompasses several other distinctive African groups or clades. These include elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes (the Paenungulata); the aardvark and elephant-shrews, and the golden-moles and tenrecs.
The newly-discovered round-eared sengi is a charming little critter (image by John P. Dumbacher, the lead author of the paper):
Macroscelides micus is a true xerocole, an animal cleverly adapted to living – indeed, thriving – in arid conditions. This sengi lives on and around the Etendeka Plateau, a large area of volcanic rocks formed 130 million years ago as the South Atlantic was beginning to form – they were originally connected to the vast landscapes of the Paraná volcanics of Brazil.
This image from the California Academy of Sciences paper shows this stark and remote terrain (together with an example of the bizarre and unique xerophyte, welwitschia – but that’s another story):
Which brings me back to the beginning of this post and a slight rant about fact-checking. Like, I am sure, most of us, when a topic like this comes up, one of the first questions is where exactly is the Etendeka Plateau? Look at the two maps at the head of this post. On the left is the map reproduced in an article on the discovery in one of our illustrious British newspapers (and yes, given the recent news, I’m being sarcastic). Accompanied by the words “Mapped: Found in a remote area of Namibia, on the inland edge of the Namib Desert (mapped) at the base of the Etendeka Plateau”, it places the poor sengis right in the midst of the dunes of the Namib sand sea. Xerocoles they may be, but that’s pushing things a bit too far. The correct location – some 500 kms north – is shown on the right-hand map and is clearly illustrated in detail in the original paper if anyone had cared to check.
I find this time and time again. Google maps can’t even get my home location in London right, so why believe a map of an obscure and remote location reproduced in a newspaper? The answer is simply for no reason at all. It’s a sobering thought – if, on so many occasions, a simple fact-check on something you are particularly interested in reveals sloppiness and error, what about all the other stuff we don’t bother to fact-check?
More than fifty years ago, my parents particularly enjoyed the production that opened the newly constructed Mermaid Theatre in London (now sadly, and controversially, converted to a ‘Conference and Events Centre’). The play was a musical, based on an 18th century comedy by Henry Fielding, and included the satirical song It must be true. I remember, for years after, my father periodically singing to himself the opening line: “It must be true, for I read it in the papers, didn’t you?”
Wise man, my Dad.