Wilderness Underfoot: Untamed shrews

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117027667029071.jpg’, ”, ‘The northern short-tailed shrew ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11702767412956.jpg’, ”, ‘The pygmy shrew ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11702766272978.jpg’, ”, ‘The “subnivian zone” – In the area lying between winter snow cover and the soil, shrews, voles and mice create networks of burrows. Snow protects the burrows from extreme cold, and when chambers are lined with fur and feathers, they can be quite warm and comfortable compared to the open air. Coyotes and other carnivorous mammals have learned to hunt for the subnivian zone’s tiny mammals by listening for the sound of rustling, and then pouncing on the snow to collapse it on the prey. ‘);

People who despise rodents tend to react with disgust when seeing shrews, but any associations drawn between these creatures are unfair.

Despite their similarities, shrews are not rodents. They aren’t even closely related to rodents. Instead, they belong to a more primitive order of mammals called insectivores, which also includes moles and hedgehogs. Animals in this order are adapted for eating insects (hence the order’s name). Their ancestors date back to the Triassic Period, when dinosaurs first emerged.

A closer look at shrews reveals their narrow, pointed noses, tiny eyes, and forelimbs bearing five toes (mice only have four toes in front).

To compensate for poor eyesight and nocturnal habits, many shrews are equipped with the ability to echolocate, using high-frequency clicks to find their way around, much like bats do. Shrews are masters at staying out of sight. They dig burrows in habitats as varied as prairies, open woodlands and dense forests. They’re abundant in locations with plenty of insects, dead plant matter and a bit of earthy dampness. In fact, in any Illinois woodland, shrews may be the most abundant—if least visible—of all the vertebrate animals.

Although shrews can become mild pests, they are far less destructive than mice and moles. They usually avoid human structures, unless those structures are infested with spiders and insects. Outdoors they’re often helpful in controlling slugs, snails and insect pests such as beetles and grubs.

Shrews have voracious appetites, eating their own weight in invertebrates each day when food is plentiful.

From the Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2007, issue

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