Feb 11

One of Madagascar’s most unusual inhabitants has become the first mammal ever filmed using its quills to communicate.

Photo of a lowland streaked tenrec eating a worm

The lowland streaked tenrec, Hemicentetes semispinosus, is a bizarre Madagascan mammal resembling a cross between a shrew and a hedgehog.

The bizarre mammal, a lowland streaked tenrec, was filmed by a crew from the BBC Natural History Unit as part of the BBC’s new Madagascar series. The footage shows the tenrec making high-pitched ultrasound calls by rubbing together specialised quills on its back. Although this fascinating behaviour was discovered some time ago, this is the first time it has ever been filmed.

This form of communication, known as ‘stridulation’, is known from other species such as crickets, beetles and snakes, but has not been recorded in any other mammal.

Photo of head of Sind saw-scaled viper

‘Stridulation’ is best known from insects such as grasshoppers and crickets. However, species such as this Sind saw-scaled viper can also stridulate; in this case, by rubbing the scales together.

A diverse group of mammals

Despite resembling a hedgehog or shrew, the lowland streaked tenrec is in fact a member of a unique group of mammals called tenrecs, which have diversified into a wide range of species on Madagascar. This species is found in rainforests in the east of the island, where it feeds on invertebrates such as earthworms.

Photo of a common tenrec

The common tenrec, another of Madagascar’s fascinating tenrec species.

The unusual creatures were a challenge to film. “They’re active during the day and during the night but they hide a lot so it can be difficult,” said local conservation expert Dr Rainer Dolch, who helped the crew to search for the tenrecs. The sounds the tenrecs produced were also too high for humans to hear, so a bat detector had to be used to pick them up.

Lowland streaked tenrec portrait

If threatened, the lowland streaked tenrec can use its spines in defence, attempting to lodge them in its attacker.

Mysterious form of communication

The quills used by the tenrecs to produce sound are very different to those found on the rest of the body. However, scientists have yet to discover exactly why the lowland streaked tenrec uses its quills in this way, and why it is the only mammal to do so.

See the BBC’s article and tenrec footage.

View more Madagascan species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author