Newly Discovered Shrew Has Spine of Steel
by Kelly Servick
It’s the size of large rat, but it can reportedly withstand the weight of an adult man standing on its back.
The Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo wore it as a talisman in battle, hoping for invincibility. Meet the hero shrew (Scutisorex somereni), a rodent that owes its near-mythological status to a remarkable spine, thickened by extensions of bone that interlock like fingers.
The structure was thought to be unique among mammals—until now. An international team of researchers in the village of Baleko, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, made a surprising find: a slightly different shrew with a similarly “heroic” backbone. Today in Biology Letters, they introduce Thor’s hero shrew (S. thori), named for mammalogist Thorvald Holmes, but invoking the Norse god of strength.
The new species (pictured) has a smaller and less bumpy skull; flatter ribs; and shorter, silkier fur than its sister species, the team reports, but genetic tests and x-rays reveal that it’s undeniably Scutisorex (bottom spine, inset, as compared to S. somereni, middle, and a non-Scutisorex shrew, top)…
(read more: Science News/AAAS)
images: Bill Stanley; Stanley et al. Biology Letters (2013)