Nature – Elephant Shrew

The world is full of quirky creatures, and the elephant-shrew is a perfect example. These furry, long-nosed animals resemble a mix between miniature antelopes, anteaters, and rodents, says Galen Rathbun of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Even though their name and appearance suggest otherwise, elephant-shrews are more closely related to aardvarks, sea cows, and elephants than they are to shrews.

Checkered elephant shrews are found only in central and southeast Africa, Uganda, southern Tanzania, northern Zaire, northern and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, northern and central Mozambique, northeastern Zambia, and Malawi. Although found in a range of habitats, the checkered elephant shrew is more adapted to areas where water and plentiful supplies of food are available year-round. The thick ground cover of coastal bush forest, as well as highland and lowland forest, provides an ideal habitat.

Elephant shrews are terrestrial and are active during the day. Their ears and eyes are large, and, when alarmed, they run on their toes swiftly along paths that they construct and maintain, sometimes leaping over obstacles. When foraging, they move along the pathways, using their paws and the constantly moving proboscis to turn over leaf litter and soil in search of prey, which consists of small insects (especially ants and termites), other arthropods, and earthworms.

Elephant shrews take their name from their long pointed head and very long, mobile, trunk-like nose. Long, slim legs and characteristic hunchbacked posture give them the appearance of a miniature antelope or perhaps a tiny pig with a long tail. A gland on the underside of the tail produces a strong scent used to mark territories. This musky smell apparently serves as a deterrent against many carnivores.

Unlike many small mammals, the checkered elephant shrew is only active during daylight. It feeds nearly all day, constantly poking its long nose under leaves and forest litter. The mouth is set back and below the nose, but the tongue is extremely long and can be extended beyond the end of the nose. It eats invertebrates like ants, termites, beetles, spiders, millipedes and worms.