Friday, March 19, 2010

Feel the beat

While I was with the mongooses today, we came across a pair of short-snouted elephant shrews (Elephantulus brachyrhynchus).

It's only the second time I've seen these little animals, and they're breathtaking. Always nervous and poised for flight, they seem to consist of nothing but huge ears, wide, startled eyes (thanks to their distinctive white eye-ring), trembling whiskers and whiffling nose. Of course the mongooses noticed them as soon as I did, so there was no chance for a photo. The pair was instantly away, skittering wildly through the undergrowth with Spark (a Koppiekats female) in hot pursuit. But elephant shrews are amazingly fast (my mammal book describes their jinking hurtle as 'ricochetal locomotion') and they quickly lost the mongooses.

Elephant shrews (or sengis) are something of a mystery. Found only in Africa, they were believed to be Insectivores (they eat insects, after all). However, it turns out that they have the teeth and digestive tract of a herbivore (e.g. they have a relic caecum - the organ used by rabbits and horses to ferment grass). They're now thought to be a very ancient group, and they have their very own order: Macroscelidea.

Elephant shrews are diurnal (ah, I love African mammals) and they live as territorial, monogamous pairs. Apart from the usual squeaks and odorous gland secretions, they communicate using foot-drumming. They don't just stamp and vibrate their hind paws as an alarm signal (as, for example, with rabbits or phascogales), elephant shrews have incorporated drumming into their social interactions and aggressive displays too. Each species (and there are about 17) has its own unique pattern of drumming, with bouts of stomping varying consistently in length, frequency and duration. So if you're an elephant shrew expert, you can identify a species from its sense of rhythm!

This photo of a short-snouted elephant shrew was taken by Martine van Rooyen and borrowed from here.

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