Elephant shrews, also referred to as jumping shrews or sengis, are tiny insectivorous mammals native to Africa, belonging to the Macroscelididae family, in the order Macroscelidea.
Their traditional English common name “elephant shrew” is derived from a supposed resemblance between their long noses and an elephant’s trunk, as well as their superficial similarity to shrews (family Soricidae) in the order Eulipotyphla.
Phylogenetic research, however, confirmed that elephant shrews are not classified as true shrews but are instead more closely linked to elephants than shrews.
The biologist Jonathan Kingdon suggested in 1997 that they should be named ‘sengis’ (singular sengi), a word derived from the Bantu languages of Africa, instead, and they were classified into the current Afrotheria clade in 1998.
|Order||Macroscelidea Butler, 1956|
|Family||Macroscelididae Bonaparte, 1838|
They are widely distributed in the southern part of Africa and can be found in almost any form of habitat, from the Namib Desert to boulder-strewn outcrops in South Africa to dense forests.
In the semiarid, mountainous land in the far northwest of the continent, one animal, the North African elephant shrew, remains.
The Somali elephant shrew went missing from 1968 to 2020 but was rediscovered in Djibouti by a group of scientists. The creature, which has been recorded to reach speeds of 28.8 kilometres per hour (17.9 mph), is one of the fastest small mammals.
Sengis have relatively large brains as compared to other mammalian insectivores.
Elephant shrews are tiny, quadrupedal, insectivorous mammals resembling rodents or opossums. They have scaly tails, long snouts, and long legs, which are used like rabbits to travel from one location to another.
An elephant shrew ranges in size from around 3.9 to 11.8 in (10 to 30 centimetres), 50 to 500 grams (1.8 to 17.6 oz). The average height of the short-eared elephant shrew is 150 mm (5.9 in).
While the size of the trunk varies between species, in search of food they’re able to twist it around. Their life in the wild is approximately two and a half to four years, and they have large canine teeth, close to those of ungulates, as well as high-crowned cheek teeth.
Elephant shrews are difficult to trap and only rarely seen, but most of them are diurnal and very active; they are wary, well camouflaged, and adept at stepping away from threats.
Several species establish a series of cleared undergrowth pathways and spend their day patrolling them for insect life. The path offers an obstacle-free escape route if the animal is upset.
Elephant shrews are not very social species, but many live in monogamous pairs marked with scent glands, which share and protect their home territories. Rhynchocyon species often dig small conical holes in the soil (bandicoot-style). However, others might use natural crevices or make leaf nests.
Short-eared elephant shrews populate the dry steppes and stone deserts in southwestern Africa. They can also be found in one of the driest regions of the world, the Namib Desert. Some females are pushed away by other females, while males attempt to fend off other males.
Although they live in pairs, the partners do not care much about each other, and reproduction is their sole aim of even associating with the opposite sex. There are not very frequent social behaviours, and they also have different nests.
Similar to that of human females, female elephant shrews undergo a menstrual cycle, and the species is one of the few non-primate mammals to do so.
In the 1940s, elephant shrews were employed to research the period of human menstruation. The breeding cycle of the elephant shrew lasts several days, and the couple will revert to their solitary habits after mating.
The female will carry litters of one to three babies several times a year after a gestation period, which ranges between 45 and 60 days. The young are born reasonably well established but stay for several days in the nest before venturing outside.
The young’s milk diet is supplemented with mashed insects after five days, which are gathered and carried in the female’s cheek pouches. The young will then begin to explore their world slowly and search for insects.
After about 15 days, the young will begin the migratory phase of their lives, which lessens their dependence on their mother.
They will then develop their home, which has a range of approximately 1 km2 (0.39 sq mi) and within 41- 46 days they’ll become sexually active.
In most classifications, the thermal characteristics of elephant shrews with equal body size, habitat and distribution are relatively similar.
In different ambient temperatures, they can sustain homeothermia where most organisms control their body temperature at 35 ° C and neither become hypothermia.
Nonetheless, elephant shrews can balance the heat offload by raising the EWL (evaporative water loss).
Elephant shrews primarily eat insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and earthworms. An elephant shrew uses its nose to locate prey and uses its tongue, much like an anteater, to flick tiny food into its mouth.
Eating large prey can be challenging for an elephant shrew; they eat an earthworm by first pining it to the ground with a forefoot. Then, turning its head to one side, it chews bits off with its cheek teeth, just like a dog chewing a bone.
This is a messy operation, and many tiny pieces of worm fall to the ground, which is flicked up by its tongue. Some elephant shrews also feed on small amounts of plant matter, particularly new leaves, seeds, and small fruits.
A range of fossil species, all from Africa, are known, and they were different from Leptictida’s similar-appearing order. In the Paleogene Period, a substantial diversification of macroscelides occurred.
Elephant shrew such as Myohyrax was so similar to hyraxes that they were originally included in that category, whereas others such as Mylomygale were relatively rodent-like.
The Pleistocene all died from these unusual forms while macroscelids have been classified in the past with several classes. Mostly, based on superficial characteristics, they are placed at the base of Afroinsectivora within Afrotheria by considerable morphological and molecular evidence.
In terms of timing, the separation between macroscelids and afrosoricidans is thought to have occurred approximately 57.5 million years (Ma) ago, in the late Paleocene. Besides, the diversification of extant macroscelids apparently started when the Rhynchocyon lineage broke off about 33 Ma ago, in the early Oligocene.
Elephantulus is known to have separated from Macroscelidini later in the Oligocene, about 28.5 Ma ago.
Since they are so small, there are a variety of predators facing elephant shrews, including snakes, lizards and numerous birds of prey.
Although it is also true that the little elephant shrew can feed on any carnivorous or omnivorous form of species, the fact is that they are hard to capture.
Elephant shrews are well suited to their environments. Their colour does not only masterfully camouflage them, but they are swift and agile as well. Most elephant shrews can sprint up to 18 miles per hour and jump three feet into the air.
The main threat to the elephant shrew, rather than predators, comes from habitat destruction. Deforestation and the fragmentation of the habitat that comes with cultivation and forestry have also had a detrimental effect on the population of elephant shrews.
They are classified as “not extinct,” but their state of conservation is commonly regarded as endangered. The two most vulnerable species of elephant shrew are the grey-faced sengi, only discovered in 2005, and the golden-rumped elephant shrew, currently classified as endangered.
Can elephant shrews be domestic animals?
Elephant shrews are wild animals, despite their cute and cuddly appearance, that can only survive and thrive in Africa or carefully managed captive environments like zoos and conservation centres.
In addition to this, they are also an endangered species, and this makes them unsuitable and illegal to have as pets. Consider the adoption of a mouse, rat, gerbil, hamster or chinchilla instead of an elephant shrew.
Are elephant shrews dangerous to humans?
You may have learned that shrew bites are venomous to humans, and that is true. The venom is not usually deadly to humans, but a bite from a shrew is painful.
The good news is that elephant shrews are not part of the family of shrews, so they don’t bear the same venomous bite.
Elephant shrews, in general, do not pose any risk to humans. They appear to shy away from something that may be considered risky or predatory, so they do not associate much with humans at all.