Elephant shrews


Quick notes:

  • Elephant shrews are small, insect-eating mammals that live in Africa

  • There are 19 different species of elephant shrew; the golden-rumped elephant shrew is endangered

  • Elephant shrews mate for life, help control the insect population and are all-around amazing

What are elephant shrews?

For starters, they’re not really shrews. Elephant shrews (also known as sengis) are little rodent animals that weigh between 1 and 24 ounces, live for a couple of years, and eat a lot of bugs. Their name comes from the long, trunk-like noses that make them look like miniature, furry elephants. Scientists are realizing that the connection between these guys and elephants could be more than skin-deep.

There are 19 different species of elephant shrew, each with their own preferences, sizes, diets, and abilities. Most elephant shrews have incredible jumping abilities and are fast little runners. You would be, too, if your life depended on hiding from and outrunning the predators of the African plains! Snakes, lizards, and super-hungry big mammals all try to eat them, but the elephant shrew has speed (and hiding places) on its side.


Unlike many other rodents and small desert-dwelling animals, the elephant shrew is awake and eating during the day instead of under cover of night. Luckily, their many defense mechanisms (including a strong scent gland under their tails to ward off potential predators) enable them to lead happy, healthy, shrew-length lives … mostly.

While only one variety of elephant shrew is officially endangered (the golden-rumped elephant shrew), wilderness sightings aren’t especially common. Not only are they good at hiding (in rocks, tunnels, grasses, etc.), they only live in specific areas of Africa. Each elephant shrew species has evolved to succeed in a particular environmentgrassland, jungle, forests, mountains, desertsbut people keep encroaching on their land. Over the last couple of years, the percentage of elephant shrews has decreased 20-30 percent, primarily due to habitat destruction.


What is so cool about the elephant shrew?

We tend to think of anything “elephantine” as enormous, but the elephant shrew’s possible genetic connection to the lumbering grey zoo favorites proves that it’s not just size that counts here. Nearly everyone loves the elephant, and everyone should enjoy the elephant shrew just as much (and not just because of its trunk).

First off, elephant shrews do their part to keep the insect population under control. They’re always eating bugs, and the more they eat, the fewer we have to deal with. Their favorites include spiders, millipedes, earthworms, ants, and termites. And while it’s not a good idea to get a pet elephant shrew deal with a pest problem, you can at least say an occasional silent “thank you” to the millions of them working to keep our world bug-free.


Elephant shrews are also not that much different than people, give or take a couple of hundred pounds. Much like most of us, they get pretty aggressive when their territory is invaded. They’re of the “attack now, ask questions later” variety; if another elephant shrew or similar-sized beast crosses the line, it doesn’t take very long for the shrew to kick, snap, and scream.

And that’s not where the similarities end. Elephant shrews are romantic little guys: they mate for life. Although there aren’t divorce statistics for elephant shrews, it’s pretty safe to say that they might be doing better than many of us in the relationship-longevity category.

Can we save the sengi?

Hopefully, maybe. In August 2019, researchers confirmed the presence of elephant shrews in the Dakatcha woodlands in Kenya, an area threatened by logging, uncontrolled burning, and farming. However, with this confirmation of elephant shrew presence, everyone is hopeful that further protective regulations are not far off.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101

26 of the most deadly animal encounters | Science101

Not all interactions with animals are positive. While the elephant shrew probably won’t hurt you, some of these animals certainly might. 

Weird animals raise questions | Science101 

Elephant shrews aren’t the only weird animals on the planet. Find out just how little we know about some of the animals that share our home.