5 Jan 2016

The spiky newcomers, known as tenrecs, are the first of their kind to ever be seen at the zoo.

Found in Madagascar and parts of the African mainland, tenrecs closely resemble hedgehogs but, in fact, they’re unrelated.

Dave White, team manager here at the zoo, explains:

Although our new arrivals might look very similar in appearance to hedgehogs, they’re actually not related. They have merely evolved the same method of defence – rolling up into a ball so that would-be predators are met with their coat of spines.

This is a great example of convergent evolution, a process by which animals that are not related independently evolve to have similar traits to one another – a result of having to adapt to similar environments.

Lesser hedgehog tenrecs mostly feed on insects and usually forage alone. They are found in southern and southwestern areas of Madagascar, where wild populations are steadily declining as a result of severe habitat loss on the island. 

Dave added:

The tenrec, like much of Madagascar’s unique wildlife,  is coming under more and more pressure for survival as their forest habitat disappears to make way for fields of rice and other crops. There’s a rapidly growing but extremely poor population in Madagascar who are themselves pressured into clearing forests in order to set up new farmland. Sadly, it’s impacting greatly on the species that are only found on the island. 

The good news is that Chester Zoo is working out in Madagascar to help protect the forests where these incredible species live. We’re engaging local communities and, working with our conservation partner Madagasikara Voakajy, we’re helping locals to develop new techniques for growing crops that don’t involve the destruction of the forest.

In January, a team of 12 from the zoo also travelled to Madagascar to carry out a range of other conservation activities including habitat restoration and running camera trap studies. The work is helping towards the creation of a conservation action plan for a host of threatened species there. Our aim is to ensure there’s forever a home in the wild for remarkable animals such as the tenrec.

Tenrec facts

  • Scientific name: Echinops telfairi
  • Tenrecs are found mainly in Madagascar and in parts of the African mainland.  Hedgehogs are found in Europe, Asia and Africa
  • The tailless tenrec, the largest species of tenrec, can have litters up to 32 young. They have 29 teats – more than any other mammal
  • Tenrec species can weigh between 5g and up to 1kg
  • Tenrecs are a diverse group which can be aquatic, fossorial, arboreal or terrestrial
  • Tenrecs are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation and hunting for fur and meat
  • They are thought to share a common ancestry with sea cows, elephants, hyrax and aardvarks, in a group called Afrotheria
  • Tenrecs communicate in a variety of ways, such as smell, touch and sound. The lowland streaked tenrec though uses a method called stridulation, in which it rubs specialised quills on its back to make an ultrasonic call.