What Large Ears You Have: Interview with the Large-Eared Tenrec

February 27th, 2014

By David Brown and Stuart Short

Today’s article is coming to you from Ankarafantsika National Park in Madagascar. Our special guest today is the creature known by the common name “Large-Eared Tenrec”.

Geo- the large-eared tenrec. Photo Copyright P.J. Stephenson

Interviewer:  Hello, Mr. Large-Eared Tenrec, how are you today?

Large-Eared Tenrec:  I’m fine thank you.  You can call me Geo.  My scientific name is Geogale aurita. 

Interviewer: What would you like to tell us about yourself, Geo?

Large-Eared Tenrec: If you saw me and didn’t know better you would probably think I was some kind of mouse.  I’m about the size of a small mouse with grey fur on my body and white fur on my tummy.

Interviewer:  So you are not a mouse?  You really do look like one.  Are you really sure that you aren’t?

Large-Eared Tenrec:  Ha ha!  I fooled you!  Nope, I’m a tenrec.  I’m related to elephants and aardvarks, not to rodents!  My ancestors came to the island of Madagascar from Africa and there weren’t a lot of other animals around. We evolved to take advantage of all of the different ways of making a living that were available to us because nobody else was around.

Interviewer: What kind of lifestyle do you have, Geo?  Where do you live and what do you eat?

Large-Eared Tenrec:  Well, you see these ears that take up a lot of space on my head.  They’re not just for looks (although they do make me look cute, don’t they?).  I use them to listen for termites moving underground.  When I hear the termites I scamper over and chomp them down. There’s noting better than slurping down fresh termites on a warm night.  DELICIOUS!  I live in grasslands and dry forest areas where termites live.

Interviewer:  Do you have any special method for eating termites?

Large-Eared Tenrec:  I have 34 sharp teeth for shredding and munching those termites.  Look, there’s one now!

Interviewer: OWWWWWW!

Large-Eared Tenrec:  Ooops, sorry dude.  I thought that the tip of your finger there was a termite.  My bad.

Interviewer:  Okay, I think it’s about time to wrap this up.  Are there any animals that you are afraid of Geo?

Large-Eared Tenrec:  Owls.  Owls like to eat us.  Fortunately with these large ears we can usually hear them coming.  Speaking of which, what is that whooshing coming down from the forest?  If that’s what I think it is, then I’ve really got to run!  Take care!

Interviewer:  And that, ladies and gentleman, was Geo, the large-eared tenrec.

Freaky, Streaky, and Squeaky

February 27th, 2014

By Stuart Short & David Brown

You tromp through a low elevation rain forest in Madagascar and hear strange squeaks and chirps emerging from out of the plants below you.

You creep forward to investigate. Suddenly you see a group of animals unlike anything that you’ve seen before. Ten of them are sniffing along the ground with long pointy snouts that look almost like bird beaks. They are pretty small – maybe the size of a hamster. Their bodies are roundish and covered with spines like a hedgehog. They have the bright colors of a bumblebee with yellow streaks running down their bodies. To top it all off each of the animals has a bright yellow crown of spikes on its head.

So, have you been transported to another planet filled with these weird little animals that you have never seen or heard of before? Of course not!

You have encountered a family of Lowland Streaked Tenrecs! These animals are not hedgehogs, birds, or bumblebees, even if they look like a hodgepodge of these animals smashed together. They are one of many species of tenrecs living on Madagascar.

An image of two highland streaked tenrecs. Photo courtesy of Stuart Short.

Lowland streaked tenrecs look unlike any other tenrec species except for their cousins who live in high elevation rain forests. Highland streaked tenrecs are as spectacularly weird as their lowland cousins, but they have white streaks like racing stripes running down their sides instead of yellow ones.

Streaked tenrecs are very social animals and live in family groups with both males and females. They are the only kind of tenrec that lives in family groups.

Streaked tenrec families forage in the forest for soft-bodied invertebrates such as worms and beetle larvae. They have very fragile jawbones and can only eat soft food, which means their entire diet is soft-bodied invertebrates and a small amount of fruit. If they tried to eat anything harder it could damage or even break their jaws!

Sometimes streaked tenrec families get separated in the forest and need to communicate with each other. A streaked tenrec has special spines on its back that it can rub together to produce high-pitched squeaks and chirps, like a violinist running her bow across a violin string. This process is called stridulation. Crickets and other insects commonly use stridulation to communicate, but streaked tenrecs are the only mammals that are known to stridulate.

Humans cannot hear streaked tenrec stridulation because it happens at sound frequencies that are too high for human hearing. Scientists need a special ultrasound microphone to pick up the sounds of tenrec stridulation. Scientists have noticed that the stridulation clicks get louder the higher a streaked tenrec raises the crown of spikes on its head.

Streaked tenrecs are rarely kept in captivity due to their short lifespans and the need to keep them in groups or at the very least pairs. Zoos and private keepers are working to build a population of these animals in captivity so that people around the world can learn about the marvelous freakiness, streakiness, and squeakiness of the lowland streaked tenrec.