March 2, 2009
The elephant-shrew looks like a mouse designed by a committee. It’s got a trunk like a pachyderm, the tail of a kangaroo and an anteater’s tongue. Like a shrew, it eats insects. And like an elephant, its got a long trunk-like snout. But the creatures are neither elephant nor shrew, and belong to their own group of ancient mammals. Unlike many other small mammals, they don’t scuttle down burrows to escape hungry predators. Instead, they run like hell. And they’re fast enough to be cocky, seemingly teasing the predator with a “bring it on” slap of the tail.
Last month, a new baby elephant-shrew was born at the Zoo’s Small Mammal House, but keepers didn’t even know about it until recently and then trained a camera on it (above). The proud parents are black-and-rufous giant elphant-shrews, native to the forests of Kenya and Tanzania, where they are endangered because of encroaching populations. In the past, this species, Rhynchocyon petersi, proved difficult to breed in captivity. But a new breeding effort is having success, though it is sometimes difficult to detect just when the happy occasion arrives (Newborns remain in the nest for three weeks. Though the male and female are monogamous, elephant-shrew dads don’t do much beyond defending the territory from rival males.)
The baby now about five weeks old is busily exploring his new digs with its parents.
(Adapted from Smithsonian’s June 2005, “Shrewd Configuration” by Richard Conniff, author of strangebehaviors.com and Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Things With Animals, W.W. Norton, due out May 4.)
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