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Miracles of Weird: The Tenrec

Tenrec FI

by on February 21, 2014

For this week’s Miracle of Weird we’ll be covering not just a single species but rather an entire family of bizarre little critters called tenrecs, a group of mammals native to sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Species within the family Tenrecidae are as diverse from one another as they are from the rest of the animal kingdom. Convergent evolution has caused tenrecs to develop adaptations more immediately associated with other animals such as otter-like webbed feet and long rat-like tails. Though many people mistake tenrecs for shrews and hedgehogs, these smalls mammalians are actually more closely related to elephants and sea cows.

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable feature of many tenrec species are the spines that cover their bodies. Some species use these spines much like a hedgehog would, by rolling themselves into a ball and rendering themselves altogether too prickly for a predator to retain interest. Other species use these spines as a more active defense mechanism. By thrusting their bodies upward at an attacker, some tenrecs will actually attempt to prick them with their spines. Add porcupine to that list of animals you could mistake them for.

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More than just a killer hair style – the tenrec’s spikes can be used to spear hungry predators. (Inaki Relanzonlnaki Relanzon)

The Lowland striped tenrec has one of the most fascinating adaptations in the entire mammalian class. By rubbing their back spines together, members of the species are able to create a low pitched noise which is able to cut through the omnipresent din of Madagascar’s eastern jungles. The unique sound allows mothers to reunite with their young should they get separated. The process of rubbing two body parts together to make a sound is called stridulation, and the lowland striped tenrec is the only mammal ever observed performing it. Stridulation is more immediately associated with insects such as grasshoppers, some of whom can also make noise by playing the violin (see: Mr. Grasshopper, James and the Giant Peach, 1996)

The video below shows how a young striped tenrec getting wrapped up in a worm binging session and then using stridulation to reunite with its family.

Within the family of tenrecs, there is also a surprisingly wide range of litter sizes. While the giant otter shrew gives birth to only 2 offspring per litter, the tailless tenrec can bear as many as 36 babies at a given time. You can tell a female tailless tenrec from other species by the 36-seat strollers they’re often seen pushing through the jungles of Madagascar.

Source: BBC Nature