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What is an Elephant Shrew?

By Angie Bates
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A type of small mammal related to aardvarks and moles, the elephant shrew lives exclusively in Africa. Since it is not an actual shrew, the elephant shrew is usually called sengi by scientists, and the term includes four genera with 17 species of this rodent-like animal. The sengi got the name "elephant shrew" because of its long, trunk-like nose and its similar appearance to a shrew. All four genera of elephant shrews are located in the family macroscelididae.

Elephant shrews date back over 23 million years, though many species are now extinct. The remaining four genera are Rhynchocyon, Petrodromus, Macroscelides, and Elephantulus. Rhynchocyon and Petrodromus species live mostly in forested areas, and Macroscelides and Elephantulus often are found in more arid regions. Sengis are generally found where there are water and food sources year round.

Most genera live in burrows made by other animals, but those in Rhynchocyon create leafy nests on the forest floor. Elephant shrews are generally diurnal, meaning they are active only in daylight. Some species, however, may be active both in the day and the night.

The elephant shrew is primarily insectivorous, eating ants, spiders, termites, beetles, and other insects. At times it may supplement its diet with seeds, fruits, or plant greens. Elephant shrews use their long snouts to search under the vegetation clutter on the ground to find food. Their long tongues can then reach past their noses to grab the food.

Territorial, elephant shrews live in pairs, though they spend most of their time apart. Scent markings determine the location of each shrew in the territory, however, and interlopers are dealt with aggressively. If a trespassing sengi is female, the female of the pair will force her out, if male, the male will deal with the intruder.

With a gestation rate of only two months, a female elephant shrew will give birth four or five times a year. Newborns will stay in the nest or burrow for the first three weeks of their lives before following the mother for an additional week. After the first month, young elephant shrews are independent, but will remain in their parents' territory for up to six weeks before finding their own.

The largest threat to the elephant shrew populations is forest fragmentation, though they are eaten as food in some places. As of 2010, there is only species that is considered endangered: the golden-rumped sengi, Rhynchocyon chrysopygus. The black and rufous sengi, Rhynchocyon petersi, and the gray-faced sengi, Rhynchocyon udzungwensis, are considered vulnerable, however, and the checkered sengi, Rhynchocyon cimei, is classified as near threatened.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is an elephant shrew?

An elephant shrew, also known as a sengi, is a small insectivorous mammal native to Africa. Despite its name, it's not closely related to shrews but is part of the order Macroscelidea. It has a distinctive long nose resembling an elephant's trunk, which it uses to sniff out prey. Elephant shrews are known for their agility and can run at speeds of up to 28 kilometers per hour.

How many species of elephant shrews are there?

There are about 20 recognized species of elephant shrews, each varying in habitat preference and size. These species are spread across the African continent, with some favoring forested areas while others inhabit savannas or semi-deserts. Their diversity reflects their adaptability to different environmental conditions.

What do elephant shrews eat?

Elephant shrews are primarily insectivorous, feeding on a diet rich in ants, termites, and other small invertebrates. They use their elongated noses to forage through leaf litter and soil, and their sharp vision to spot prey. Occasionally, they may also consume plant material, such as seeds and fruits, to supplement their diet.

Are elephant shrews endangered?

The conservation status of elephant shrews varies by species. While some are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, others face threats from habitat destruction and fragmentation. For instance, the Grey-faced Sengi is listed as Vulnerable, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to protect these unique creatures and their habitats.

How do elephant shrews reproduce?

Elephant shrews are monogamous, with pairs forming strong bonds and defending territories together. Females typically give birth to one or two offspring after a gestation period of about 45 to 60 days. The young are relatively well-developed at birth and are able to run within a few hours, which is crucial for their survival in the wild.

What role do elephant shrews play in their ecosystem?

Elephant shrews play a significant role in their ecosystems as both predator and prey. By consuming insects, they help control pest populations, and their foraging behavior aids in soil aeration. As prey, they are an important food source for larger predators. Their presence is indicative of a healthy, biodiverse environment.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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