Almost everyone who travels to Africa is on the lookout for elephants…but some of the ones you spot might be a lot smaller than you think.
Meet the elephant shrew, a strange little rodent that’s actually not particularly closely related to either elephants or shrews (though strangely enough, its closer cousins are the elephants). An early offshoot of an ancient evolutionary tree, elephant shrews, or sengis, are a species apart.
The black-and-rufous elephant shrew, one of 17 species of sengi found across Africa.
“Rhynchocyon petersi from side” by Joey Makalintal from Pennsylvania, USA – A Fascinating OneUploaded by Richard001. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhynchocyon_petersi_from_side.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Rhynchocyon_petersi_from_side.jpg
There are multiple sub-species of elephant shrew, but they’re all characterized by their most, ahem, prominent feature…a massive, mobile nose.
This “trunk” is constantly wiggling around, searching through the leaf beds of the forest floor for insects.
In total, 17 species are found scattered around the continent (some more “well-endowed” than others). Both the black-and-rufous and giant varieties have been spotted in the forests of Tanzania.
Bear in mind, by the way, that the term “giant” is relative; this species still only weighs about four ounces at adulthood.
Recently, a new sub-species of elephant shrew, the grey-faced sengi, was discovered living exclusively in the Udzunga mountains of Tanzania.
Like so many of the various sub-species of sengi, the grey-faced elephant shrew has a limited range; of course since it has only ever been spotted in this specific mountain range, “limited” is probably an understatement.
None of the species are directly threatened by humans, as they live exclusively in heavily-forested areas with well-established leaf beds. And predators aren’t a major concern; elephant shrews are known to build multiple “escape routes” from their nests, tunnels through which they can rapidly disappear at the first sign of a threat.
But encroaching civilization and global warming are both taking their toll on the species; deforestation makes it harder and harder for these wide-ranging animals to find mates in their “section” of the forest, and environmental changes in the forests that remain are robbing them of their preferred nesting sites.
Which means that, though it may be less majestic than its long-trunked namesake, an elephant shrew sighting on safari would be a much rarer—and possibly more memorable—moment.