A quick little plush ball with a long snout – this is the short-eared elephant shrew (Macroscelides proboscideus), also known as the round-eared sengi. They are not only funny and cute, but very interesting animals as well, which should have attracted more attention in zoos. Even if their keeping is quite different from many other similarly small mammals, it is not an impossible task… So, I try to summarize some advice to help you with keeping this species.
Why are elephant shrews so interesting? They are not rodents, neither insectivorous animals, and – I suppose the scientists who gave the name did not know it – they are in fact related to elephants, as both groups are members of the Afrotheria superorder. Their behaviour is also surprising, quite different from what you would expect from these small animals...
Actually this species is the most common one of the elephant shrews that can be seen in zoos, especially in Europe. According to the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), 33 European and only 5 North American zoos have these animals, 129 individuals altogether (as of November of 2015).
It is one of the smallest elephant shrew species, its weight is about 40-50 gram, males being slightly larger than females. It is in question whether there are two subspecies or the darker M. proboscideus proboscideus and lighter M. proboscideus flavicaudatus are two different species. The former live in South Africa and Southwestern Namibia, the latter in the more arid regions of Namibia. Zoos keep M. proboscideus proboscideus.
Wild short-eared elephant shrews live in very arid deserts and semi-deserts where they can hide in the grass or bushes, but they can burrow into sand too. They are usually diurnal animals. Sengis are extremely quick animals; they can run incredibly fast for the human eye. Their other escape method is digging tunnels into the sand. In nature they typically eat small invertebrates, mainly insects (for example ants and termites). They may also feed on plant parts, roots, shoots and berries.
They are solitary animals; males and females only meet for breeding purposes. They are socially monogamous, which is very rare among small mammals. Unlike other monogamous animals, like small ruminants, sengis live in dispersed pairs that are characterized by a weak bond, probably as a consequence of ecological pressures such as predation and high intersexual competition for critical resources. The male uses the strategy of mate guarding in the breeding season. He follows the female and chases and fights other males. Female reproductive behaviour favours mate guarding tactics during her receptive period, they have a short postpartum estrus that lasts for about 1 day only.
Reproduction is as fast as anything else with this species. The mother doesn’t make a nest for the 1-2 babies but leaves them in a shelter for a long time, coming back to feed them only once a day. Babies are large and very well-developed at birth, they can run within a few hours and are born with hair and their eyes open. They are weaned at 16-25 days and reach sexual maturity after about 43 days.
So, after getting to know the main characteristics of this species, let’s see how to keep them. It is very important to know that even if they are very small, they need a relatively large area. If we keep only one specimen the minimum ground surface should be at least 0.5 m², but when we have a pair we should provide as large a terrarium as possible. Moreover, several sengis cannot be kept together in one place without negative consequences (fighting, high stress). It is suggested to keep them alone or in pair, and in the second case we should provide a lot of shelter and visual barriers in the terrarium allowing them to be separated from each other.
It is advised to keep them in a desert-like terrarium with deep fine sand and rocks. Woodchips can be used but they need sand as well. It is not necessary to offer hay or similar material because these animals do not build nests for breeding.
We should provide hot spots, for example with infra-bulbs. The temperature of the enclosure should be at least 25 degrees Celsius during the day with warmer hot spots exceeding even 30 degrees Celsius. Temperature can be lower in the evening. The terrarium should be cleaned very often because they leave a lot of faeces in the whole area. The animals like resting on higher elevations (for example a bigger rock or tree branch). We should exercise caution when catching them because their bodies and limbs are very thin and fragile under the long fur.
We feed the elephant shrews with mealworms, crickets, zophobas, fruits (apple, banana, grape), cucumber, cereals, few finch food and wheat.
According to my experience, it is suggested to separate the male from the female and young babies – they have more chance to survive that way than when remaining with the male. Unfortunately, it is difficult to notice the presence of offspring in the first days because the female hides them well. Furthermore, young animals should be separated after reaching sexual maturity.
I hope I could draw attention to elephant shrews. As you can see, they are a very impressive species and – even if their keeping is not as simple as of rats’ – it is not impossible to provide good conditions for them in a zoo.