Elephant shrew: what we know about its survival

Elephant shrews are widespread throughout Africa and occupy very different habitats

by Lorenzo Ciotti
Elephant shrew: what we know about its survival

Elephant shrews are widespread throughout Africa and occupy very different habitats, from forest to desert, they are present in particular in the Namib desert.
Taking dead animals into consideration, the Macroscelids look like clumsy and disproportionate animals, with the large head embedded in the body, the stilted legs and the thin tail, the large eyes.

However, when alive they move with such swiftness, jumping, unwrapping, incessantly moving the long nose, that they look incredibly graceful. They are mainly insectivores, but the diet, in addition to insects and other small animals, such as worms and spiders that fish in their burrows with their long worm-like tongues, can also include plant foods, especially seeds and sprouts.

They are diurnal, gregarious, peaceful and very active. They give birth to few offspring, but already able to see and walk and covered with hair. The dimensions can vary in length from 100 to 300 mm and in weight from 25 to over 500 g.

The common name derives from the similarity with the shrews of the Soricidae family, which are however considerably smaller, and from the shape of the snout, which ends with a prominent and prehensile appendage that can resemble the trunk of an elephant.

Elephant shrew: what we know about its survival

The hind legs are quite long in relation to the body and this characteristic is at the origin of the scientific name of the family. The color varies in relation to the habitat, from yellowish-gray to reddish-brown.

Studies of fossil and modern teeth indicate that the first ancestral forms were mainly or exclusively consuming plant material and then gradually moving to an insectivorous diet. The earliest known macroscelid fossils are Chambius kasserinensis from the early Eocene of Tunisia and Herodotius pattersoni from the late Eocene of Egypt, lived between 55 and 34 million years ago.

The dental anatomy of these and other fossils support, but do not confirm, a common descent of the macroscelids and the so-called condylarthroses Condylarthra, a primitive paraphyletic order which gave rise to numerous lines of modern ungulates.

Among the condylarthrosis, in particular, notable similarities have been found with representatives of the Apheliscidae family, such as Apheliscus and Haplomylus, and with the enigmatic Paschatherium.