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This Bizarre Animal Communicates Like No Other Mammal On Earth

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Yes, this is a mammal, and yes, it does have bright yellow stripes. Yes, it is also covered with spines. And just to top things off, yes it communicates in a way no other mammal on Earth does.

Do you want to know what a lowland streaked tenrec is? Too bad. It's from Madagascar, and nobody goes to Madagascar expecting to find answers. If you try, you're just going to find a chain of categorization that will eventually make you lose your mind. The lowland streaked tenrec is a great example of this.


A lowland streaked tenrec is, I have found, one of any number of tenrecs. A tenrec is a member of the family tenrecidae. Is that helpful? No? The family tenrecidae is a part of the suborder tenrecomorpha. So far, we've just got variations on the name "tenrec," which we didn't understand to begin with, but after this things do improve. Tenrecomorpha is a member of the family afrosoricida. Which means, "looking like African shrews." And that's the closest thing to an answer you're going to get. A tenrec is a thing that looks like an African shrew, but isn't one.

One way at tenrec isn't like a shrew is its many spines. Those spines are not passive deterrents to predation. The tenrec can move them, pointing them at anything foolish enough to want to eat a mystery shrew-beast. The advantage of the spines is obvious. But when scientists broke out a bat detector, which picks up high frequency sound, they found that the spines aren't just weapons.


The tenrec is the only mammal that practices stridulation — the grinding of one body part against another to make sounds. Other animals that do this are usually insects, like katydids and crickets. For most mammals, fleshy and soft, the disadvantage to grinding two body parts together fast enough to make a sound is obvious. The lowland streaked tenrec, with its spines, doesn't have our chafing problems. As it wanders around the leaf cover in Madagascar, it grinds its spines together, communicating near-constantly with other tenrecs. This keeps tenrec families together, and helps them reaffirm that the outside world just never really get them, man. I mean, comparing them to shrews? Ugh.

Image: Frank Vassen

[Sources: The Lowland streaked tenrec and its quills of communication, Bizarre mammal.]