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At first glance you might think you were looking at a mouse. But in fact, this tiny insect-eater disguised as a rodent is more closely related to its mighty namesake: the elephants! The Elephant shrew (also known as sengis) are only found in Africa. The 20 known species are found primarily in Southern and Western Africa. Let’s take a closer look at the amazing elephant shrews!
For many decades it was thought there were 19 species of elephant shrews, but just last year (2020) the Somali sengi (Elephantulus revoilii) was rediscovered in Somalia after a 50-year absence of scientific sightings.
Are Elephant Shrews Elephants, Shrews, Or None of the Above?
Here’s the thing, elephant shrews look like shrews but they are not shrews. They are were first described in the 1800’s and classified by scientists as shrews because of their physical similarities. Today, scientists prefer to call them sengis, in order to distance them from the misleading name “shrew”.
But, elephants shrews are obviously not elephants either (surprise, surprise). The elephant shrew got its name due to their flexible snout, which resembles the trunk of an elephant, which is used to find prey including worms, spiders, and insects. Watch the video below to see the elephant shrew’s snout in action!
So What are Sengis?
This is a question that has been baffling scientists for over a hundred years, who’ve variously aligned them with shrews, rabbits, ungulates, and primates.
Recent DNA research reveals that elephant shrews are more closely related to elephants, manatees, and aardvarks than to shrews (although not genetically very similar to either). They currently rest in their own order (Macroscelidea) and family (Macroscelididae). Hence they are scientifically referred to as Macroscelids.
These days, most scientists recognize sengis as a member of the Afrotheria, an ancient offshoot of the African mammal evolutionary tree. These also include hyraxes, sea cows, aardvark, and the tenrecs and golden-moles.
Behavior of Sengis
Sengis are solitary creatures, but form monogamous mating pairs. They lead separate lives, sleep in separate burrows, and hunt alone. They only meet for a short period during mating season, so it is quite lucky to see two together like these two who we saw in the Kgalagadi.
What do Elephant Shrews eat?
All elephant shrews prey on invertebrates like spiders, insects, and worms. Most species supplement their diet with seeds, small fruits, and green plant matter.
Who Preys on Elephant Shrews?
Like most small mammals, elephant shrews are commonly preyed upon by raptors (birds of prey), snakes, and carnivorous mammals like the caracal pictured below.
Elephant Shrews are one of the Little Five
Most people have heard about the Big Five, a term that was given to the most dangerous African animals during colonialist times. The animals in the Big Five group are leopard, rhino, lion, buffalo, and elephant. In more recent decades, safari marketing managers have used the ‘Big Five’ as a way to lure tourists to Sub-Saharan Africa on African safaris.
The Little Five (also known as Small Five) takes this a step further. The Little Five is a term given to five small animals in Africa that share part of their name with the Big Five and were named due to a shared physical resemblance or behavior. The Little Five are leopard tortoise, rhino beetle, ant lion, buffalo weaver, and elephant shrew!
While we have seen all of the Little Five, seeing the elephant shrew was the most memorable one!