A New Shrew at the Zoo

Small Mammals curator Bob King talks about the short-eared elephant shrew, a new addition to the National Zoo

An adorable elephant shrew
An adorable elephant shrew Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo recently welcomed a short-eared elephant shrew to its Small Mammal House. The adult critter, which came from the Philadelphia Zoo, weighs only 1.5 ounces or so and has a little snout reminiscent of an elephant’s trunk. The likeness does not end there though. In fact, the 17 living species of elephant shrew are more closely related to elephants than shrews. Who knew? I recently caught up with Bob King over email, the Zoo’s curator of small mammals and the Kids’ Farm, to learn more about this particular shrew.

How long has it been since the National Zoo had a short-eared elephant shrew?

The last ones that we had were back in 2001.

What makes it an important addition to the Small Mammal House?

It adds to its diversity. Someone recently remarked that it looked like this shrew was created by Disney, and I think that its uniqueness helps to captivate our visitors. By providing a close peek at such a neat, and yet unusual animal, we hope to enthrall our guests and create the awe and wonder that is representative of our natural world. All of our exhibits within the Small Mammal House are glass down to the floor level. We love the fact that it allows our youngest visitors the opportunity to get close to such new and exciting animals at their level. We are all about making connections to the natural world, and these little shrews (sengis, actually!) are well suited as ambassadors to their wild brethren.

What do you mind most interesting about this species?

It is pretty neat to watch them use their snout—an elongated appendage best compared to an elephant’s trunk. These noses are always on the move alternating between foraging, smelling and probing as they move around their exhibit. In many ways, their world is defined through their nose, and it is fun to watch it move in exploration.

What goes into caring for this shrew?

Like most of the animal care at the National Zoo, it takes a high degree of professionalism from the entire team to ensure their care. It starts with our dedicated keepers that spend their days working directly with these animals. Our staff researches the natural history of their charges to provide suitable habitat as well as to best develop enrichment plans designed to encourage natural behaviors. These keepers are also the ones that get to know each individual animal the best. They monitor their animals so closely that they are often the first to notice subtle behavior changes that are often indicative of a medical concern. Backing up the keepers are the superb folks from Nutrition, Animal Health, Integrated Pest Management, Horticulture and even Pathology (among others). Everyone within the Zoo has a role to play to ensure our animals receive the best care, nutrition, medical care and enrichment. Not only do they provide excellent habitats for the animals, but they present these exhibits in such a way that it can create a positive, teaching moment for our visitors.

The short-eared elephant shrew is an active animal that can move relatively quickly and can jump much higher than you might expect. With this in mind, the keepers must take care to minimize escape opportunities when entering the enclosure as well as be aware of the animal when moving about. Another challenge is to provide adequate areas for the animal to hide (a normal behavior for a small mammal), while also providing natural encouragements for him to stay visible to the public. Even the neatest of animals have little benefit to the public when they are out of sight. With careful exhibit development, coupled with a good knowledge of natural behaviors, our staff can provide excellent housing that provides for the needs of the animal, while also providing visibility to the public. Sometimes the guest may have to search around for the animal, but it is in that search that they can sometimes better appreciate what they are seeking.

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