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

by | 27th February 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.

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Tenrec series: not a hedgehog!

by | 4th December 2013

By David Brown & Stuart Short

“Does anybody know what this animal is?” asks Stuart Short as he carefully holds a small mammal up for his audience to see.

Stuart is a biologist and wildlife educator.  He is giving a presentation on the animal to an audience at a natural history museum.  The animal is small and has spikes all over its roundish body.  It has a long snout and small black eyes on a furry face.

“It’s a hedgehog!” a girl in the audience replies.  That is a good guess, but not the right answer.  The girl shouldn’t feel bad though.  Of all the thousands of people that Stuart has talked to about this animal, only four have correctly guessed what it is.

What is this mystery mammal that has tricked so many people about its identity?

It is a lesser hedgehog tenrec.

A lesser hedgehog tenrec. Photo by Wilfried Berns www.Tierdoku.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

The lesser hedgehog tenrec does indeed look like a hedgehog, so much so that people used to think that the tenrec was a close cousin of the hedgehog.  Scientists now think that the lesser hedgehog tenrec is really the cousin of elephants, aardvarks, and manatees and is not closely related to hedgehogs at all.

Stuart tells the audience that the lesser hedgehog tenrec comes from Madagascar, an island off the coast of East Africa.  There were never any hedgehogs on Madagascar so there was space there for an animal that ate the same diet of insects and other invertebrates that the hedgehog does.  The lesser hedgehog tenrec is that animal.  It protects itself from predators the same way that a real hedgehog does by rolling up into a ball with its spikes sticking outward.  With a similar appearance and lifestyle to hedgehogs, it is no wonder that people are confused about what a tenrec really is.

A boy in the audience asks how the lesser hedgehog tenrec is different from real hedgehogs.   Stuart tells him that one important difference is that you might find the tenrec in a tree: “Unlike hedgehogs, lesser hedgehog tenrecs are semi-arboreal, meaning that they like to climb, and in captivity they need branches to keep properly active. Their claws are hooked to help grip and hold on, rather than straight like the hedgehogs.”

Stuart walks into the middle of the audience so that people can get a closer look at the claws of the tenrec.  The tenrec yawns as Stuart carefully holds it in the palms of his hands.  “It looks like Dracula!” a woman remarks as she glimpses the sharp teeth of the lesser hedgehog tenrec.  Stuart explains that those teeth are used to pierce the shells of the insects that the tenrec eats.

“How does a tenrec clean itself?” a girl asks.  “Does it lick itself clean like a cat?”  Stuart smiles and walks back to the front of the room, picking up an enlarged photo to show the audience.  The photo shows a tenrec happily rolling around in what looks like sand.  “Tenrecs seem to enjoy a sand bath. They will rub it in between their spines and roll their bodies and face into the soft sand especially for this purpose,” Stuart tells the girl.

“Can I get a tenrec as a pet?” a boy asks Stuart.

“Tenrecs require a lot of care and attention and should only be kept by people willing to research their care as much as possible, and who have the time, knowledge and experience with other exotic pets,” Stuart replies.

The best place to see a lesser hedgehog tenrec and appreciate what weird and wonderful animals they are is in a wildlife presentation by an experience tenrec keeper like Stuart or at a zoo where the tenrecs are given the specialized care that they need.

Now if you ever go see a wildlife presentation by Stuart Short or another biologist and they show you a small animal with spikes all over its roundish body, a long snout, and small black eyes on a furry face, you’ll know that it might not be a hedgehog!



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Tenrec series: the otter that is notter

by | 4th December 2013


By David Brown & Stuart Short

KERSPLASH!  Deep in the rainforests of Central Africa, a biologist sees an animal that looks like an otter dart into a stream.  It has a brown body and a white belly like an otter.  It swims like an otter by moving its long, flat tail through the water.

It is not an otter though.

What is this otter imposter? It is a giant otter-shrew.


A drawn image of a giant otter shrew.

It is not an otter, and it isn’t a shrew either!  The otter-shrew is a tenrec.  Most tenrecs live on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa.  A few species of tenrecs, the otter-shrews, live in Africa.  Tenrecs have an amazing diversity of shapes and lifestyles.  There are tenrecs that look and live like hedgehogs, moles, shrews, and otters.

Julie DeWilde is a wildlife biologist.  She looked for otter-shrews along rivers in the rainforests of the Congo Republic in Central Africa.  She and a team of other biologists were doing a study called a survey to see what kind of animals live along the river.

Giant otter-shrews are very secretive animals.  Very few scientists have seen them.

How do you look for an animal like the giant otter-shrew that doesn’t want to be found?  “We first check out different places to look for signs like footprints, burrows, or feces [poop]. The help of local hunters was essential to guide us with that” says Ms. DeWilde. “I then set up camera traps along shallow rivers in the deep forest where we noticed signs of giant otter-shrews.”  Camera traps are cameras that automatically take a picture when an animal moves past them.

Ms. DeWilde and her team found signs of otter-shrews at five different places along the river.  They then walked along the river to try and see the actual animal.  “During the whole survey, the giant otter-shrew was seen three times by the team. I had the chance to observe it once, by night, swimming very fast and then quickly hiding under a tree trunk”, says Ms. DeWilde. “We set up camera traps around the area, but couldn’t get a photograph.

Why would Ms. DeWilde and her team go to all of this trouble to find giant otter-shrews?  Otter-shrews spend much of their time in the water and they eat fish, frogs, and insects that may absorb pollution in the water.  “Otter-shrews are good indicators for water pollution and thus very important,” says Ms. DeWilde.  An indicator is a species that tells scientists whether a river in an area is polluted.  If otter-shrews are not found in a river then it may mean that the animals that it eats have been wiped out by pollution.

Nobody knows much about how otter-shrews raise their young or how long they live.  “We still have a lot to discover about this species,” Julie DeWilde explains.  Hopefully someday scientists will learn much more about the otter imposter living deep in the African rainforests.


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Tenrec series: the amazing multi-purpose tenrecs

by | 4th December 2013

By David Brown & Stuart Short

If you owned a tropical island with forests and rivers and deserts and you wanted to populate it with animals that would use all of those ecosystems what would you do?

You could bring in several different kinds of animals to live in the trees, and the water, and burrow in the ground.  Or you could bring in the ancestor of the tenrec and wait for it to develop into different kinds of animals that can live in all of those different places.

Lowland Streaked Tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus). Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay

Tenrecs are a group of mammals that lives on the island of Madagascar off the coast of East Africa.  There are also a few tenrec species in the forests of Central and West Africa.  People have been very confused about what kind of animals tenrecs are, and even about what groups of animals are tenrecs.  This confusion is because there are species of tenrecs that look like many different kinds of animals.  Some tenrecs have small round bodies with spikes all over them.  They look almost exactly like hedgehogs.  The fossorial tenrec with the scientific name Oryzorictes hova digs in the ground and looks like a mole.  There are several tenrec species that look like shrews.  Along rivers in the rain forests of Africa there are three species of tenrecs with body shapes and lifestyles similar to otters.  They are called otter-shrews, although they are neither otters nor shrews!  For a long time people weren’t even sure that otter-shrews were tenrecs.

Who are tenrecs related to?  Because the body shapes of several of the tenrec species resemble hedgehogs and shrews, people thought that tenrecs were related to these groups.  Scientists now think that this is wrong.  By building family trees of mammal groups using genetic material, scientists now think that some of the closest relatives of tenrecs are elephants, aardvarks, and manatees!

How did this weird group of animals evolve into so many different body shapes and lifestyles?  Part of what explains the many different kinds of tenrecs is where they live.  Most tenrec species live on the island of Madagascar where they have been for millions of years.  Dr. P.J. Stephenson is a tenrec expert.  He explains what happened once the tenrecs arrived in Madagascar: “When tenrecs arrived (probably by rafting on logs or floating vegetation) there were no mammals so they evolved to fill many of the available niches. Rodents don’t compete directly as they don’t feed on the same things.”  A niche is the way of life of an animal, what it eats and where it lives.  In most habitats there are many different kinds of animals that compete for the same kind of niche.  When the ancestor of the tenrec arrived on Madagascar millions of years ago though there were few mammals to compete with the tenrecs.  The tenrecs evolved to take over many different niches that they probably could not have if they had to compete with rodents, moles, shrews, hedgehogs, and other species.

Most of the tenrec species are not well known. Scientists have not studied many of the tenrecs in the wild and not many of them are in zoos. The lesser hedgehog tenrec is an exception. The lesser hedgehog tenrec has been kept in captivity since the well-known author and conservationist Gerald Durrell brought them to the UK in the hope they would breed. In August 1967 they did just that! This was the first recorded breeding in the UK and there were more baby tenrecs to come.

Lesser hedgehog tenrec. Photo by Stewart Short.

Keeping lesser hedgehog tenrecs in captivity has helped biologists learn much about this tenrec species and tenrec biology in general. There are 4 other species of tenrec that do well in captivity: the common tenrec (the largest tenrec species), the greater hedgehog tenrec (the larger cousin of the lesser hedgehog tenrec) and the 2 species of streaked tenrec (tenrecs with little yellow and black stripes). There is still a vast amount to learn about these species and their wild cousins.

The basic natural history and behavior of most tenrec species is still unknown to science.  One thing that we do know is that many tenrec species are endangered by habitat destruction in their ecosystems in Madagascar and Africa.  People may wonder why understanding tenrecs and trying to protect them is important when most people have never even heard of these weird animals.  Dr. Stephenson the tenrec expert observes: “If we lose tenrecs it means we will have lost their forest home. This in turn means people in Madagascar will lose all the products and services they take from forests (food, fuel, medicine, building materials, water, soil, etc.). The outside world will also suffer due to the carbon released and the resultant climate change. Therefore, having tenrecs is a good sign the environment in Madagascar can sustain people and nature.  For many people too, the loss of a tenrec would mean the loss of millions of years of evolution and all the scientific knowledge we have yet to discover about these unique mammals.”

Common tenrec bearing its teeth. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

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Jaguar conservation receives boost

by | 1st October 2012

Article by Darren Lloyd

An agreement signed between Panthera (Worlds’ leading wild cat conservation organization), the Costa Rican government and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has given Jaguar conservation a huge boost.

  • The near threatened jaguar is the Americas’ biggest cat and is widely regarded as one of the Worlds’ most majestic creatures.
  • Jaguars roam much of Central and South America but are under threat from habitat loss and direct killings relating to jaguar predation of livestock.
  • The agreement; called the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ will benefit jaguar conservation in the following ways;
  • Firstly, all parties will commit to trying to secure protected wild lands acting as jaguar habitat or that which offers a corridor through which jaguars can safely navigate to other areas of habitat across its’ whole range (from Northern Argentina to Mexico!)
  • Secondly, ensuring ranching and jaguar habitat is conservation compatible. New methods will reduce jaguars killing farmers’ livestock (and therefore reduce instances of farmers killing jaguars to protect their livelihoods).
  • In the U.S, the FWS have also proposed to designate almost 850,000 acres of land to critical jaguar habitat, which would mean the land would be protected from any land degrading activity.
  • The agreement comes as great news for the jaguar as well as many other species which will benefit as a result of the protected land.

Want to Learn More?  Read the full story: Jaguar conservation gets a boost in North and Central America

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Bolivian national park a biodiversity hotspot

by | 1st October 2012

Article by Darren Lloyd

A parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla), one of at least 50 species of snake in Madidi National Park. Photo Credit: Mileniusz Spanowicz/WCS.

Located in northwest Bolivia, Madidi National Park covers 19,000 square kilometres and is believed to be the most bio-diverse place in the world.

  • The park contains over 90 species of bat, 50 species of snake, 300 fish and 12,000 plants.
  • Decades of research have also found 1,088 species of birds, amounting to 11 percent of all species worldwide.
  • 200 mammal species including six cats are also found in the park.
  • The park is so high in biodiversity because of the various habitats it contains. A large altitudinal (land height) range means that many different habitats exist and as a result, many different species are there to exploit them.
  • A lot of the park hasn’t even been surveyed yet, such as its cloud and montane forests which usually contain lots of species, so lots of discoveries are yet to be made.

A young harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. These massive raptors prey on monkeys. Photo by: Mileniusz Spanowicz/WCS.

The king of the Amazon: a male jaguar (Panthera onca) in Madidi, considered Near Threatened. Photo by: Mileniusz Spanowicz/WCS.

Want to learn more?  Read the full story: http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0912-hance-madidi-park-biodiversity.html

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Gopher Tortoise

by | 29th August 2012

Essay By Elizabeth Loudon

It’s breezy. I can hear the wood planks squeak and creak as I rush down the path. The sun sits directly overhead. I approach the waterfront and stop to admire the power and beauty of the crashing waves. An old lady with a dog stops to ask me about my writing. She mentions that she saw a group of kids earlier, so she was wondering what we were up to. I grin and reply, “Yep, I’m a straggler.” Although I am carrying on a conversation, I’m distracted by the urge to ditch my shoes and frolic barefoot. I feel like a child, but I must practice self-control and limit my frolicking. The group is always ahead of me, and I should be running to catch up. Oh, the challenges of being a straggling tortoise in a world of hares!

When I return to the boardwalk, I begin traveling at an accelerated pace. All the dips and inclines make me feel like I’m walking on the Great Wall of China. I am trying desperately not to be the last student to return to the parking lot. Just as I’m rounding a bend, I see a round object in the sand moving slowly and steadily towards the boardwalk. I come to an abrupt halt and stand face to face with a gopher tortoise. Like a paparazzi, I quickly remove my camera phone from my pocket and snap pictures of the rare creature. I begin to talk to him, hoping I can coerce him to come closer. What am I thinking? He’s not a dog! To my great surprise, he continues to approach me.

Gopherus Polyphemus

Gopherus Polyphemus. Photo by NASA.

He sits for a second and stares at me. Would it be conceited to think that he’s as interested in me as I am in him? Nah, if anything he’s just assessing me to see if I am a threat. Gopher Tortoises have the conservation status: “vulnerable.” Not only do they cope with environmental degradation, but they also experience poaching because humans desire their habitat and their meat. The Gopher Tortoise earned the nickname of “Hoover Chicken” during the Great Depression because it was viewed as an economical and easily hunted source of food. As a result of habitat loss and predation, gopher tortoises are at great risk. If I were a corrupt developer, or a hungry poacher, or even a misguided pet seeker, I would be quite dangerous to the gopher tortoise. It is unwise for him to approach me with such fearlessness, but he is fortunate that I am simply a curious student.

In the modern day, the biggest advantage that a vulnerable or endangered animal can have is being appealing to humans so that they are inspired to protect and preserve it. The easiest way to earn this advantage is not by being an indispensable member of an ecosystem, nor by being increasingly uncommon. In all seriousness, the best method for appealing to humans is by being cute. As I gazed at the gopher tortoise, I concluded that he’s in luck. Although he’s not cuddly like a polar bear, he’s adorable in his own right. While initially optimistic, I began to realize that even the adorable and relatively famous polar bear isn’t likely to survive the appalling consequences of the environmental destruction it is currently experiencing. If the polar bear can’t make it, does the gopher tortoise even have a chance?

The realist in me cautiously hopes that the gopher tortoise can beat the odds and thrive. Tortoises are often associated with age and wisdom because they have the potential to live for more than fifty years. In the ancient story of the tortoise and the hare, we are taught that tortoises should not be underestimated. If humanity is similar to the self-assured and speedy hare, our childhood fables should remind us that hasty progress and overconfidence are perilous. If we do not recognize the benefits of taking our time and pacing ourselves, we may wake up to a world that is without the gopher tortoise. How then would our children be able to comprehend the story of the tortoise and the hare?

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