Tenrecs – little punk shrews

Being well into my 30s now, I really felt I had a good grasp of your basic animal types. But then I learnt about tenrecs. I’d never heard of them until I started looking for photos of the Seychelles for our competition. I gather Microsoft Office hasn’t heard of them either as every time I write it a red zig-zaggy line comes up. I found them fascinating, so let me tell you about them:

A baby Tenrec
Not actual size, a baby – photo: nomis-simon

What are they?

They’re smallish mammals with spines on their backs but fur on their little faces, bellies and paws. There are lots of different types of tenrecs, some are softer, some are spikier. Some are bigger, some are smaller. Some are stripy, some look like they’ve had highlights. Some have rather long snouts.

So they’re related to hedgehogs? I mean, just look at ‘em

No. Riddle me that. This blows my mind. You’re honestly telling me that there’s an animal that evolved completely separately to the hedgehog, but it looks almost exactly like a hedgehog?! Their closest relative is an otter shrew and they share ancestry with elephants, aardvarks and hyraxes. How?! 

Pygmy hedgehog tenrec
Just a hedgehog with big ears, innit? – photo: Charles Barilleaux

What do they do?

They’re pretty shy creatures, only coming out at night for food. They forage about for insects to eat, but will happily eat a baby mouse if they come across one. To communicate they use chemicals, which I assume means pheromones rather than a bottle of sulphuric acid. If they get scared they’ll curl up and if they want the blood of their enemies they will lunge backwards to drive their spikes into them.

A lowland streaked Tenrec
Never Mind the Hedgehogs, Here’s the Tenrecs – photo: Frank Vassen

Tell me more

-They have bad eyesight. I really think they would look cute with glasses on.

-They have super sensitive whiskers.

-Some of them have 32 teeth, some get up to 42. That’s a lot of extra teeth.

-They can live up to 10 years old in the wild.

-They can have 10 babies at a time.

– The lesser Madagascan tenrecs go through something called torpor. This seems to be very similar to hibernation, but when an animal hibernates it knows it’s going to happen and prepares for it. When an animal goes into torpor it’s involuntary; it happens due to the conditions it’s in.

-They have a shared anus and urogenital tracts. This is called cloaca. Birds and reptiles have them, but it’s quite unusual for mammals to have them.

-They’re chilly. They have low body temperatures – so low in fact that they don’t need a scrotum to chill their sperm, like most mammals do.

A hedgehog Tenrec
Sonic the Tenrec (cloaca not pictured) – photo: Frank Vassen

Where do they live?

They can be found in the Seychelles but they can also be found in Madagascar and western Africa.  Different sorts of tenrecs live in different habitats. They can live by the coast, in forests, in deserts. They seems to like making dens in tree holes. There’s even a web-footed semi-aquatic tenrec!

Lesser hedgehog tenrec
“Oh, hello!” This tenrec is watching you – photo: Mr Andy J C

What other types of tenrecs can you get?

Well there are a lot! My favourite names of tenrec species are:

  • Large-eared tenrec
  • Naked-nosed shrew tenrec
  • Major’s long-tailed tenrec
  • Least shrew tenrec 
  • Shrew-toothed shrew tenrec 
  • Mole-like rice tenrec 
  • Four-toed rice tenrec 
  • Lesser hedgehog tenrec 
  • Highland streaked tenrec 

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About Lizzie Brooks

Lizzie Brooks

The most beautiful place I have been (so far!) has been Norway. Coming in to land in Oslo was like coming in to land in a fairytale; pine trees that looked like velvet amongst frozen fjords, the occasional wisp of smoke coming up from a little yellow or red house within the trees. Beautiful!

I kind of expected to see a Moomin emerging (but they are from Finland, of course).

Lizzie works in our marketing team

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