Rufous Elephant Shrew

Elephant shrews are one of the coolest small mammals I can think of. These speedy insectivorous fiends are in the clade Afrotheria, making them more closely related to elephants than to shrews or rodents. This perplexing group contains extreme morphological diversity, spanning from fossorial golden moles and aardvarks to aquatic sea cows and comical hyraxes, and Madagascan tenrecs to the iconic elephant. Here at Mpala we have the rufous elephant shrew (Elephantulus rufescens), a cute diminutive sengi inhabiting woodlands and savannahs in eastern Kenya. The most notable characteristic of elephant shrews is their long flexible and mobile proboscis. To the touch it is light and soft, veering from side to side dextrously in the direction opposite of your finger. I was surprised to see that elephant shrews have vertically slit pupils, much like the genets and many cats. This type of pupil shape is useful in crepuscular and nocturnal foraging, and also improves their estimation of vertical contours in stereoscopic vision. Once prey is located, an elephant shrew will messily chew it up, licking up the fallen pieces and goop with its long tongue.

A huge thank you to Leo, Gilbert, and Jake who allowed me to observe their mark-recapture work on small mammals in exclosure plots, and take a few photos of these amazing animals. Without them, seeing an elephant shrew up close would be nearly impossible! The singing and squeaking vocalizations of elephant shrews are especially wonderful to witness. Apparently, sometimes during their fieldwork, a captured elephant shrew will emit its vocalizations, and its mate (rufous sengi are mostly monogamous) will run up from nearby bushes to face the human invader fiercely — well, as fiercely as they can, as they rarely even bite.

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Photo credit to Clayton Ziemke

Update (05/24/2019): An elephant shrew popped out during another nuptial flight of Odontotermes termites. Really cute, but also a hyperaware animal very sensitive to disturbances! Keep watching to see it smack its tongue a little and roll over, probably getting some of the rain off its coat.

 

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