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What is an Elephant Shrew?

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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2016
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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.

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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.

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