Wondernose: What animal has the biggest families among the mammals—up to twenty-one in a litter?

by Rebecca Martin | Oct 1, 2023 | 0 comments

You say your dad’s sows sometimes have even more piglets than that at a time? All right, Wondernose, I’m not thinking of domesticated animals. And our mystery animal is much smaller than a sow. Among the different species, the sizes range from 2-16 inches (5-40 cm).

Our animal lives only in Madagascar. So you think it is a kind of lemur?

Well, it’s true that Madagascar is home to many different varieties of lemurs, which are found nowhere else. However, the answer to our riddle is not a lemur, even though lemurs also have the distinction of being exclusive to Madagascar.

Can you guess what is meant by the term “insectivore,” Wondernose?

Right—animals that eat mostly insects. Our mystery animals are insectivores. Some of the species spend their time
burrowing underground, hunting for earthworms and insect larvae. They are perpetually active, it seems—digging and foraging day and night. Apparently, their time is divided into three-hour cycles of digging, eating, and resting. Of course, it’s understandable that a mother mammal with twenty-one babies would be quite busy.

Is this some kind of a shrew? That’s a good guess. Some of the species definitely are shew-like, with long, pointed snouts and claws for digging. Their active lifestyle also reminds one of shrews. But, no, our riddle isn’t talking about shrews.

Many of our mystery animal’s species have prickly spines somewhere on their bodies. The kind with the big families has a row of spines along its back. If you were to approach one of these creatures, you would find those spines bristling upright threateningly. Some species have a “collar” of spines; others have spines all over their bodies, mixed in with coarse fur.

Now you’re wondering whether these are hedgehogs. You’re getting close. This animal’s behavior certainly resembles hedgehog habits.

You think you’ll never guess the name, as it’s probably a strange one if it’s from Madagascar.

I suppose you’re right, Wondernose. These animals are tenrecs. The species with the big families is called the common tenrec. At 16 inches (40 cm), it’s the biggest of the insectivores—and it has only a stub of a tail. Shrews, moles, and hedgehogs are all considered insectivores, so you see why I said your guesses were quite good.

Tailless tenrec (common tenrec)
Tailless tenrec (common tenrec). Photo © Damian322/Dreamstime.com.

In contrast to the common tenrec’s taillessness, we have the long-tailed tenrec. Few other mammals have a proportionately longer tail. Its body is only two inches long—whereas its tail is up to six inches! True, Wondernose, there are some jumping mammals (like kangaroos) that also have such long tails. And this tiny tenrec is a jumper too. Its hind feet are also quite large, just like the other jumpers.

Speaking of hind feet, the banded or streaked tenrec has a comical-looking pair. When it walks, the hind feet are extended outward at right angles to the body. This tenrec has black fur with lighter streaks. Its bristles are along the spine.

Not all tenrecs have spiny bristles. In fact, they can be divided into two main groups—the spiny ones and the soft-furred ones. The long-tailed tenrec is one of the furry kinds. So is the rice tenrec. This one has the bad reputation of damaging rice crops as it tunnels around hunting for food.

The marsh tenrec is also furry. Sometimes it’s called the muskrat tenrec. Both are apt names, because it has webbed feet that enable it to swim and capture water insects. There’s also a pygmy tenrec, the smallest of them all. Truth be told, it is more tail than tenrec!

Wondernose, I’ve been telling you that tenrecs are constantly active. However, for many of the species, that’s not year-round. A number of them spend the dry season hibernating (June to December). Can you guess why they might prefer not to be digging in the dry season?

Right—the soil will be hard. But native Madagascans, with their shovels, are not afraid to dig in the dry season. So they go around digging up sleepy tenrecs to use for food.

Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec. Photo © Damian322/Dreamstime.com.

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