Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane? No, It’s the Super Shrew!

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

A new species of ‘super shrew’ has been discovered by scientists. The Thorvald “Thor” Homles, Jr. (or Scutisorex thori), takes its name from Humboldt State University, but its title is surprisingly appropriate: this shrew is renowned for its remarkable strength.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the Super shrew!

                                           Belanger's tree shrew, courtesy of Marie Hale

The story of the Thor shrew begins in 1917, when Joel Asaph Allen examined a shrew from the Congo Basin. Little did he know that he was discovering a whole new species, with a spine stronger than any encountered before.  Its interlocking lumbar vertebrae makes the species spine four times stronger than any other vertebrae on earth, in relation to its size. The shrew discovered by Allen had been exposed only seven years earlier, by the local Mangbetu people, who named it the hero shrew due to its significant abilities.

"This shrew first came to light when explorers came to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The explorers watched in amazement as a full-grown man stood on the back of the hero shrew, and the animal walked away, unharmed," explains Bill Stanley, Director of Collections at Chicago's Field Museum.

It is now approaching a century since Allen first discovered this shrew’s secret strength, but a team of scientists have only just discovered the Thor shrew. This spiny mammal is at an evolutionary intermediary level between an ordinary shrew and the super strength shrew. So, whilst the original hero shrew has 10 or 11 lumbar vertebrae, Thor’s hero only has eight; which is still remarkable in comparison to humans five.

So, why have these shrews developed such unprecedented strengths? The paper in Biology Letters hypothesises that these shrews need their strong spines in order to carry logs or rocks on their back, so they can reach the prey hiding underneath, such as earthworms. They may also utilise their strength to move palm tree trunks in swamp forests, in order to retrieve the beetle larva lying beneath. Their ability to find these food sources also promotes the health and development of the species. "Access to this high quality, predictable energy source may have provided an evolutionary advantage, allowing the evolution of the reinforced torso" too, suggest scientists.
Shrews are components of their own family, called Soricidaeand. Over 300 species of shrew are known to exist, and they are closely related to moles. This new shrew was also discovered in the Congo Basin, in forests close to the Tshuapa River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These shrews have, so far, only been found in this small area, so their numbers are not fully known. Discoveries like this are exciting for scientists and animal enthusiasts however, because it demonstrates that there are still more animals out there, just waiting to be discovered.

By Camilla James

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