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February 01, 2008

A new shrew

Just so you know... A new kind of giant elephant shrew has been discovered. [BBC]


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I see the BBC has misspelled Rhynchocyon. It’s not a word that anyone but a specialist would recall clearly enough to spell properly, but since online checking now takes literally seconds, why not make the effort? I don’t know why so many journalists seem to have such difficulty with the Linnaean system of biological nomenclature. Over and over again, one sees press articles that either completely neglect to include the scientific name of the organism discussed (most common), or include only the genus name when the story is species-specific, or get things misspelled. Organizations like the BBC or other big news outlets wouldn’t let the name of a city, important artist, court case, corporation, etc., slip past the editors misspelled. Neglecting to include the scientific name (Genus, species, properly spelled.) can, and distressingly often does, render what should be an interesting piece gobbledygook.

You can get the full dope on elephant-shrews / sengis from the horse’s mouth here. Check out the video of a running sengi on the site. The spindly legs that look so goofy when standing still, yield a surprisingly graceful gallop.

The elephant-shrew / sengi name thing reflects what to bio-nerds is a very exciting result of the development of recent molecular techniques: evolutionary trees, which had heretofore been based on morphological, paleontological, developmental, behavioral, etc., information, can now be seen much more clearly with DNA. Mammalian systematics has undergone a radical transformation, with for instance, sengis now no longer considered relatives of shrews, but closer to aardvarks and manatees in the larger group Afrotheria.

"Elephant shrew" was a sweet name, but, no question now, misleading. "Shrew elephant" might be closer to the truth, but that ain't gonna fly. Good thing "sengi" is a properly cute 'n' zesty term.

Isn't a shrew a tiny mouse the size of a baby's pinky nail?

BTW - if you do an autopsy on a cow's stomach you will find numerous shrews, along with insects, giving the lie to the false idea that cows are vegitarians.

cfrost - if you have a valid beef with their spelling (stuff happens), flag it up to them. I'm sure they have a contact form, and imho the Beeb are not too proud to correct a gaffe like that.

The scoop on shrews. Not a mouse at all. And not all are tiny, though all are smallish. I can't find any reference to shrews in cow stomachs, but cows obviously consume bunches of insects, though it's an accidental by-product of snarfing vast quantities of grass. What they're after is the grass, not the bugs.

A new shrew?.. who knew? ^..^

Shrews live in grass meadows and come up with the grass along with insects.

A most excellent species of shrew. I am well pleased to share my class (mammalia) with it.

Lindsey, I hope you will give mention to the following horrifying decision by the the Harper government. Scientists employed by our federal gov't are no longer allowed to speak openly or without the permission of the Environment Minister, a neoconservative. Everything they want to say has to be vetted through the Minister's office. He will decide what goes out and how information is phrased. If the findings aren't in step with the government's position - whether it's climate change, stem cell research or any subject - it will not be released to the public.

Also, Harper has shut down the National Science Advisory office - the only non-partisan voice that is directly in touch with the PMO. His priority he says is to rely on what constituents have to say. Oh boy!

Yeah, I was reading about this the other night. They're pretty big. About the size of an average house cat. And the flexible snouts!

You gotta love that.

Yeah, I was reading about this the other night. They're pretty big. About the size of an average house cat. And the flexible snouts!

You gotta love that.

>Shrews live in grass meadows and come up with the grass along with insects.

Excellent example of gotta-have-the-last-wordism. Discussion would not change a whit without this post. But, you know, it has to be there.

There’s a shrew, a proper shrew in the family Soricidae, the enigmatic hero shrew Scutisorex somereni that has intrigued me ever since I saw a picture of its mounted skeleton in E. P. Walker’s “Mammals of the World” thirty-odd years ago. The hero, or armored shrew has an elaborately modified spine whose lumbar part especially, looks like a macramé project. The description accompanying the photo relates how people living in the hero shrew’s range in east-central Africa demonstrate the shrew’s back’s strength by balancing on one foot on the poor shrew’s back. The shrew, which is only as big as a largish mouse, is unharmed by these displays at least insofar as they’re able to scamper off in one piece, presumably hoping never to encounter another shrew-balancing human again.

Here’s the enigmatic part: No one really has any idea why this animal needs a back that can support a thousand times its own weight. It lives in lowland tropical forest and eats invertebrates with an emphasis on earthworms. It is not fossorial, but does apparently enter holes in the ground and push under rocks and branches to find earthworms. It does not live in rocky environments such as talus slopes where one might think a superman backbone would be of use. Other than the crazy spine, its only unusual internal characteristic is an intestine that is rather longer than those of your typical garden-variety shrew.

Spinal columns in vertebrates are among the most conservative of anatomical structures. Think about it: you’ve seen the vertebrae of the vertebrates you eat, fish, poultry, hoofed animals, and they all look pretty much alike even while the rest of their bodies –limbs and skulls among other things- are radically dissimilar. The hero shrew’s spine is truly weird. Each vertebra may have as many as a hundred or more processes, rods, spines, pins, call them what you will, that interdigitate with similar structures on the neighboring vertebrae fore and aft. Hero shrews also have a few extra lumbar vertebrae thrown in, which is extremely unusual among mammals. In addition to supporting vastly disproportionate amounts of weight, the spine gives the shrew a snakelike capability to double back in a narrow tunnel, which capacity one would think might actually be more useful than carrying men.

As I said, practically nothing is known about this animal, but if it could be bred in the lab it might shed some light on one of the most exciting and astonishing (There are hardly enough superlatives to describe this.) developments in biology in the last century: HOX genes. To way, way, way simplify: HOX genes regulate sequential elements of animal structure, like the segments of a centipede, or an earthworm, or the vertebrae in our backs. Turns out that the genes that govern the formation of a millipedes’ legs, an insects’ mouthparts, legs and wings, our legs and arms and backbones, are all variations on some very rigidly conserved snippets of DNA dating back to when the planet earth was still a child.

The hero shrew is an example of why conservation of natural habitats is important. The hero shrew (and the new sengi for that matter) is presently nothing more than an obscure curiosity, of no economic value whatsoever. Literally at its core however resides possible scientific pay dirt. It should be remembered that the hero shrew’s debut in the scientific literature was as a typical species description: skull, teeth, skin, a note or two about habitat, and not a word about it’s most salient characteristic, its spine. That had to wait until museum specimens were examined years later.

There’s more stuff on the hero shrew summarized here and here. There’s basically zip beyond that.

For the seriously interested in mammal backbones: Axial Character Seriation in Mammals: An Historical and Morphological Exploration of the Origin, Development, Use, and Current Collapse of the Homology Paradigm
by Aaron G. Filler. 2007. ISBN 1599424177

The German term for hero shrew is "Panzerspitzmaus" which I think is funny, evoking as it does images of Blitzkrieg shrews.


>The hero shrew is an example of why conservation of natural habitats is important.

Absolutely. A dandy sci-fi premise is that we've already destroyed a species of plant or animal that would one day provide a vaccine that would save human life on earth. Mankind committed suicide without even knowing it.

Funny, you don't look shrewish...

Does it answer to the name Hillary?

>Funny, you don't look shrewish...

I kicked the slats out of my cradle the first time I heard that one.

Thanks, cfrost, that was a good read.

But what?! No Barb Bush jokes?

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