Very small to small mammals showing a considerable range in external morphology with regards to, for example, tail length (very short to three times body length), fur color and texture, and foot structure; some species have dorsal fur modified into spines and others with elongated trunk-like bodies; four to five fingers and five toes; tooth count ranges from 32 to 40, depending on genus
Head and body length 2–14 in (5.5–35.7 cm); weight 0.1–70 oz (3.5 g–2 kg)
Number of genera, species
10 genera; 27 species
Forest, pseudosteppe, scrublands, and spiny bush
Critically Endangered: 1 species; Endangered: 6 species; Vulnerable: 3 species
Most restricted to Madagascar; otter shrews, mainland Africa
Evolution and systematics
Four subfamilies and 10 genera of Tenrecidae are generally recognized: the Tenrecinae or spiny tenrecs (Tenrec, Echinops, Setifer, and Hemicentetes); the Oryzorictinae or shrew tenrecs (Microgale and Limnogale) and the rice tenrecs (Oryzorictes); the Geogalinae or large-eared tenrec (Geogale); and the Potamogalinae or otter shrews (Micropotamogale and Potamogale).
Recent studies indicate that the tenrecids form a monophyletic group, with the Potamogalinae or African otter shrews as the sister group. This indicates that the Tenrecidae are the result of a single colonization event and subsequently speciated into one of the most extraordinary adaptive radiations of mammals in the world. When and how this event took place is an open question. The mammalian fossil record on Madagascar is rather fragmentary and no deposits are known from the Late Cretaceous to the Late Pleistocene, a span of about 65 million years. This is presumably the period tenrecids colonized and radiated on Madagascar. Their arrival on the island is probably the result of the proto-Tenrecidae rafting on vegetation across the Mozambique Channel from Africa. Fossils from the African continent from the Miocene have been attributed by certain paleontologists to the Tenrecidae, but these designations are in need of reevaluation.
Recent field inventories and a reevaluation of existing museum specimens have resulted in considerable taxonomic changes to the Tenrecidae, most notably amongst Microgale. Several new species to science have been named in recent years and numerous others remain to be described. Further, molecular studies are uncovering several previously unrecognized cryptic species. It is certain that the next decade will see a considerable augmentation in the number of recognized species and refinement of the evolutionary history of Tenrecidae.
Tenrecidae show an assortment of morphological characters. They maintain certain characteristics that have been considered primitive among living mammals. These include, for
example, small body size, common urogenital opening, and abdominal testes in reproductive males. Tenrecidae range from small- to medium-sized mammals and span a remarkable morphological gamut from the large (up to 44 lb; 2 kg) spiny tenrec, the hedgehog-like Echinops and Setifer, the desman-like Limnogale, the mouse-like Geogale, the molelike Oryzorictes, and the shrew-like Microgale (with adults of some species weighing less than 0.14 oz; 4 g). The tails of Tenrecinae are very short or at least not discernable, while among most other species in the other two subfamilies, the tail varies in length and is covered with short fine fur. Members of this family, particularly Setifer and Echinops, can roll themselves
into tight balls when disturbed. No species, with the exception of Tenrec ecaudatus, display any measurement or phenotypic feature that differs between the sexes.
Even within the genus Microgale there is considerable variation in body morphology. For example, M. gymnorhyncha and M. gracilis are probably semi-fossorial and have dense velvety pelage, well developed forelimbs and associated digging claws, and reduced ears and eyes, while the partially arboreal or scan-sorial M. principula and M. longicaudata have notably long hind limbs and prehensile tails measuring more than twice as long as their body length.
Otter shrews in the genus Micropotamogale are small, brownish gray animals with unwebbed feet and a round tail. The giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox), as its name implies, is considerably larger (about twice as long and much heavier) and has glossy chocolate-brown fur and a thick, rudderlike tail.
The family is confined to Madagascar with the exception of the otter shrews, which are found in Africa. Tenrec ecaudatus has been introduced to the western Indian Ocean islands of the Comoros, Seychelles, and Mascarenes as a food resource.
Most Tenrecidae are forest dwelling animals, particularly in the humid forests of eastern Madagascar. The major exceptions are the genera Tenrec, Setifer, Hemicentetes, and Echinops that can also be found in human-created grasslands or pseudosteppe covering significant portions of the island, and the first three genera also occur in agricultural areas and
near human habitations. Further, Tenrec and Setifer occur in all of the natural forest formations on the island. Most Tenrecidae species are terrestrial, although certain Microgale are best considered scansorial and two genera of spiny tenrecs (Echinops and Setifer) climb in vegetation several meters off the ground.
Microgale, with its currently recognized 18 species, is largely confined to the humid forest formations of the island. One member of this genus, Microgale brevicaudata, also occurs in the dry deciduous forests and spiny bush of the western and southern portion of the island. Two genera (Echinops and Geogale), each with a single species, are also confined to these drier native vegetal formations. Limnogale is confined to streams within native forest within the eastern humid forests and is the only largely aquatic mammal on the island. Micro-gale pusilla and Oryzorictes hova can be found in forested areas with wet soils or in marshlands, including those converted to rice paddy, outside of forest formations. Micropotamogale are found in upland forest streams of western and central Africa, while Potamogale velox occurs in rivers, streams, and swamps in the rainforests of tropical Africa.
At certain sites in the eastern humid forest, the density and diversity of Tenrecidae are notably high. For example at one forested site near the village of Tsinjoarivo in the eastern central portion of the island, 17 species of Lipotyphla (including 16 tenrecids) were found in sympatry. This high density in a relatively small block of forest is perhaps without parallel anywhere else in the world.
Given that most species of Tenrecidae are small nocturnal and forest-dwelling animals it is not surprising that few details are available about their life history.
Two genera of Tenrecidae have a dense grouping of spiny hairs on their back that have been modified into quill-like structures and form a stridulating organ. In young Tenrec, this organ is well developed and is used for communication within family groups, and with increasing age the quill-like structures
are replaced with standard spines and the organ no longer functions. In Hemicentetes adults possess a mid-dorsal stridulating organ, also formed of modified spines. These quills, when vibrated by muscle action, produce an ultrasonic sound that can be detected by nearby conspecifics.
The spines of Tenrecinae are used in a defensive fashion against predators. In Hemicentetes, the easily detachable spines
of the back with their very fine fishhook tips are raised when a potential predator approaches. If the predator makes direct contact, it can receive a face full of spines. Although this must be a formidable deterrent, spiny tenrecs are frequent prey for native predators.
During the austral winter, several species of Tenrecidae show a shift in activity patterns behavior, ranging from a reduction in daily movements to complete hibernation. These shifts are correlated with changes in ambient temperature, photoperiod, and food availability. In certain species, such as Hemicentetes nigriceps or Tenrec ecaudatus, animals enter a profound torpor during the period from approximately May to October. A further variation within the family is found in Geogale, which is heterothermic and body temperature follows the ambient temperature. This species has a notably low resting metabolic rate, even for a Tenrecidae.
Feeding ecology and diet
Most Tenrecidae feed on insects and a variety of other soil invertebrates—few quantitative studies are available. In the western dry deciduous forests, Tenrec feed extensively on soildwelling beetle (Coleoptera) larvae of the families Scarabaeidae and Alleculidae, and to a lesser extent on ants (Hymenoptera), scolopenders (Chilopoda), and butterfly (Lepidoptera) larvae. They are known to also feed on fruits and vertebrates.
A study conducted in the humid forests of eastern Madagascar on the diets of Microgale spp., based on stomach contents, found that various types of Orthoptera were the most frequently consumed prey, followed by Hymenoptera and Coleoptera. Remains of other animals were also identified, including Dermaptera, Annelida, Arachnida, and Amphipoda. At the level of determination, no clear dietary differences were found between sympatrically occurring Microgale subspecies.
The most common prey of Limnogale, an aquatic tenrec with a flattened tail and webbed feet that hunts while swimming,
is Ephemeroptera nymphs, followed by larvae of Odonata, Trichoptera, and Coleoptera. A few other types of aquatic invertebrates (crabs and crayfish) and vertebrates (frogs) are also taken. In addition to worms and insects, otter shrews also prey upon crabs, fishes, frogs, and mollusks found in their aquatic habitat.
It is assumed that most terrestrial Tenrecidae actively hunt their prey amongst leaf and rotten wood litter, fallen branches, and root tangles of standing trees or scansorial species on vegetation in the forest understory to mid-canopy. In some cases, particularly for genera with well developed digging claws, prey is excavated from the ground and may be detected by scent and acoustic signals. For most Tenrecidae prey are pinned down with the forelimbs and then seized with the mouth.
The reproductive biology of most Tenrecidae is poorly known—a few species have been studied in the wild or in captivity and certain details are available. Some species build nests out of vegetation that are placed in concealed places or excavate
burrows ending in a nest chamber. The majority of species have three to five pairs of mammae.
Among Microgale living in humid forests, reproduction starts in September to October, coinciding with the start of the rainy season. Litters, generally varying from one to four, are born in November and early December. Neonates are naked with non-functional ears and eyes. Young start to make foraging bouts away from the nest after their eyes open at 22 to 27 days old. Most females probably have one or maximum two litters per year. Among certain species, there is evidence that they are reproductively mature before they have their full adult dentition. In captivity, certain species seem to form male-female pairs.
Tenrec has one of the highest breeding potentials of any mammal species in the world. Litters of up to 32 individuals have been documented, and more than 20 individuals is not uncommon. Females often have 32 to 36 mammae. After being born in late November to January, young emerge from the burrow at between 18–20 days old and commence actively foraging with their mother, and become independent at about 35 days.
Within the genus Geogale, there is a post-partum estrus and females are able to nurse one litter while another is developing in the uterus. This reproductive strategy is unknown in any other Tenrecidae, and may be an adaptation to the extremely dry conditions where this animal lives, allowing it to maximize reproductive output when optimal conditions prevail.
The main threat to members of the Tenrecidae, as with all forest-dwelling organisms on Madagascar, is the continued destruction of forest habitat for slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal, and cattle pasture. The IUCN Red List indicates that several species are threatened with extinction. However, the information used to compile this list is out of date, as is the taxonomy. A meeting held in Madagascar in 2001 and attended by numerous specialists proposed new conservation status designations for Malagasy vertebrates. Among the Tenrecidae one species is classified as Endangered, one as Vulnerable, none as Near Threatened, 22 as Least Concern, and three as Data Deficient.
The African otter shrews face similar threats as the members of the Tenrecidae inhabiting Madagascar. Habitat destruction and degradation is the primary concern. The IUCN Red List classifies all three species of otter shrews as Endangered.
Significance to humans
Throughout much of Madagascar, spiny tenrecs, most notably Tenrec and to a lesser extent Echinops and Setifer, are widely hunted by people as a supplementary source of meat. In fact, in some areas, these animals are sufficiently relished that their flesh is more expensive per unit weight than beef. In certain regions, the consumption of Tenrecinae meat is considered taboo (fady) and these animals are not hunted locally.
List of SpeciesCommon tenrec
Nasolo's shrew tenrec
Dobson's shrew tenrec
Erinaceus ecaudatus (Schreber, 1777), Madagascar.
other common names
Head and body length 10.5–15.3 in (26–39 cm); weight 42–70 oz (1.2–2 kg). Fur is grey-brown or red-brown and has long stiff hairs along the back. Front legs are longer than hind legs.
Across much of Madagascar. It has been introduced to the western Indian Ocean islands of Comoros, Seychelles, and the Mascarenes.
Occurs in a wide variety of habitats from humid forests, to deciduous forest, gallery forest, and spiny bush. It also is found in human modified habitats including savanna, pseudosteppe, agricultural zones, and near habitations.
Usually seen singly and generally nocturnal, although sometimes crepuscular. During the breeding season females can be seen accompanied by a bevy of young even during daylight hours.
feeding ecology and diet
Terrestrial. The diet includes mostly invertebrates, but fruits and small vertebrates have also been recorded.
Very high reproductive potential with litters of up to 32 young. Females often have 32 to 36 mammae. May be polygamous or promiscuous.
Not threatened. Widely distributed on the island and even in zones with considerable human hunting pressure this species seems to be maintaining viable populations. Its ability to live in human-modified habitats is an important factor in this regard.
significance to humans
Widely relished for its meat.
Geogale aurita Milne-Edwards and Grandidier, 1872, Moron-dava, Madagascar. G. a. orientalis is known from one specimen collected along the east coast.
other common names
Head and body length about 2.8 in (7 cm); weight 0.2–0.3 oz (5–8.5 g). Fur is red-brown, yellow on underside. Tail has fine hair covering.
Restricted to western and southwestern portion of Madagascar, except for the specimen noted above.
Occurs in dry deciduous, gallery, and spiny bush forest. Unknown outside of forested zones. Often associated with fallen and rotten tree trunks.
Few details available about this nocturnal species. Usually seen singly, although apparent male-female pairs can be found in close proximity to one another. Heterothermic with body temperature corresponding to the ambient temperature; enters a daily state of torpor.
feeding ecology and diet
Terrestrial. The diet includes mostly invertebrates, particularly termites.
May be monogamous. Mating in late September to March. Gestation 54–69 days. Litter size 1–5 and neonates naked with nonfunctional ears and eyes. Eyes open between 21 and 33 days old and the young are soon thereafter weaned.
Within its range this species can be notably common. Its continued existence depends on the maintenance of natural forest.
significance to humans
Nasolo's shrew tenrec
Microgale nasoloi Jenkins and Goodman, 1999, Vohibasia Forest, Madagascar.
other common names
Head and body length about 3 in (8 cm); weight 0.5 oz (7 g).
Only known from southwestern Madagascar.
Occurs in transitional dry and spiny bush forest. Unknown to occur outside of forested zones.
Nothing is known.
feeding ecology and diet
Scansorial. The diet is presumably mostly invertebrates.
Nothing is known.
Only recently described from two specimens taken at two nearby sites—one in a national park and the other in a forest protected by local traditions. This species probably has a very limited distribution.
significance to humans
Dobson's shrew tenrec
Microgale dobsoni Thomas, 1884, Fianarantsoa, Madagascar.
other common names
Head and body length 3.9–4.5 in (10–11.5 cm); weight 0.6–0.9 oz (18.0–25.5 g). Fur is gray-brown with gray belly. Tail is long, usually length of body.
Across much of eastern and northern Madagascar.
Found in lowland and montane humid forests. Occurs in some secondary forest or other human-modified habitats.
Nocturnal and generally terrestrial. Towards the end of the rainy season this species accumulates body fat, particularly in the tail, and is known to aestivate.
feeding ecology and diet
Largely terrestrial, but occasionally scansorial. Well developed canines and molariform teeth indicate that it is a formidable predator. Prey located by visual, olfactory, and visual means, and then subdued with forelimbs or seized directly with the mouth. The diet consists mostly of invertebrates, however it is known to predate on small land vertebrates.
In captivity mating in September to October. Gestation 62 days. Litter size one to five and neonates naked with non-functional ears and eyes. Eyes open between 22 to 27 days old. One litter per year. Presumably polygynous.
A widely distributed species and known to occur in several protected areas. As with other forest-dwelling organisms on Madagascar, the continued existence of this species depends on the maintenance of forest habitat.
significance to humans
|Common name / Scientific name / Other common names||Physical characteristics||Habitat and behavior||Distribution||Diet||Conservation status|
|Aquatic tenrec Limnogale mergulus French: Tenrec aquatique; German: Der Wassertenrek||Hind feet are webbed, tail is flat. Pelage is dense and soft, no spines. Upperparts and head are brownish with red and black guard hairs poking through. Head and body length 4.7–6.7 in (12–17 cm), tail length 12–6.3 (12–16 cm), weight 2.1–3.2 oz (60–90 g).||Freshwater rivers. Nocturnal, sleeps in burrows beside rivers.||Eastern Madagascar.||Mostly frogs, small fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insect larvae.||Endangered|
|Mole-like rice tenrec Oryzorictes talpoides German: Maulwurfartigen Reistenrek||Fur is velvety and gray brown or dark brown in color. Underparts are gray or buffy brown. Tail is bicolored. Head and body length 3.3–5.1 in (8.5–13.0 cm), tail length 1.2–2.0 in (3.0–5.0 cm).||Marshy areas, especially the moist banks of rice fields. Nocturnal. Spends most of its time in tunnel system.||Northwestern Madagascar.||Mainly insects and other invertebrates, such as mollusks.||Not threatened|
|Nimba otter shrew Micropotamogale lamottei German: Ottersptizmäuse||Coloration is brownish gray above and gray below. Unwebbed feet and round tail. Head and body length 4.7–7.9 in (12.0–20.0 cm), tail length 3.9–5.9 in (10.0–15.0 cm), weight 4.8 oz (135 g).||Upland forest streams. Nocturnal and semiaquatic.||Guinea, Mt. Nimba, Ziela.||Worms, insects and their larvae, crabs, fish, and small frogs.||Endangered|
|Ruwenzori otter shrew Micropotamogale ruwenzorii||Brownish gray above and gray below. Unwebbed feet and round tail. Head and body length 4.7–7.9 in (12.0–20.0 cm), tail length 3.9–5.9 in (10.0–15.0 cm), weight 4.8 oz (135 g).||Upland forest streams. Nocturnal and semiaquatic.||Ruwenzori region (Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC]), and west of Lake Edward and Lake Kivu (DRC).||Worms, insects and their larvae, crabs, fish, and small frogs.||Endangered|
|Giant otter shrew Potamogale velox French: Potamogale; German: Die Groβe Otterspitzmaus; Spanish: Potamogalo||Long, tapered body. Thick, tapered, rudder-like tail, flattened muzzle with numerous whiskers. Dense, soft fur, glossy chocolate in colorations. Underparts are white. Head and body length 11.5–14 in (29.2–35.6 cm), weight 2.2 lb (997 g).||Occurs in rivers, streams, and swamps in rainforests, as well as montane torrents. Two offspring in each litter.||Tropical Africa; from Nigeria to Angola and east to the Rift Valley.||Mainly frogs and mollusks.||Endangered|
|Lesser hedgehog tenrec Echinops telfairi French: Petit tanrec hérisson; German: Kleiner Igeltanrek||Dorsal side is covered in spines. Spines vary from pale whitish to black. Paws and ventral sides covered with fine hairs.||Arid regions of Madagascar, such as dry forests, scrub, cultivated areas, dry coastal regions, and semidesert. Nocturnal and communication is tactile.||Southern Madagascar.||Invertebrates, but occasionally baby mice.||Not threatened|
|Yellow streaked tenrec Hemicentetes semispinosus French: Tenrec zébré des terres-basses||Pelage is spiny, sharply pointed, black in color. Distinct whitish markings. Hair on underside is very spiny and chestnut brown in color. Head and body length 6.3–7.5 in (16.0–19.0 cm).||Live within burrow systems in rainforests and brushland habitats. Social groups are variable.||Madagascar.||Mainly earthworms.||Not threatened|
|Greater hedgehog tenrec Setifer setosus French: Grand hérisson; German: Groβer Igeltanrek||Upperparts covered with short, stiff spines. Spines begin at forehead and extent to hindquarters. Head and body length 5.9–8.7 in (15.0–22.0 cm), tail length 0.59–0.63 in (1.5–1.6 cm).||Dry forest and agricultural areas. Diurnal, solitary, active throughout year.||Madagascar, central plateau.||Worms, insects, ground meat, and the carcasses of dead mice.||Not threatened|
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Steven Goodman, PhD