Dominic Couzens: The extraordinary (and overlooked) water shrew

water shrewAsk most people whether they have heard of a water shrew and they’ll shake their head. If you tell them that there are 1.9 million water shrews in Britain and that they have a poisonous bite, then those same people are likely to raise their eyebrows, amazed they have never heard of it. The water shrew (not a water vole or a “water rat”) manages to keep a remarkably low profile for the extraordinary creature that it is.

Shrews are the mammals that look superficially like mice—they are small, brown and furry—yet are quite unrelated to them. They are flatter-bodied than mice and don’t hop, and have long snouts that move around in a somewhat robotic, mechanical fashion as they seek food. With small eyes (they are related to the almost-blind moles) and small ears, shrews lack the features that give mice and voles an easy identity to humankind. Shrews don’t live indoors or steal our food, either; they subsist on a diet of insects and other small living things. So shrews aren’t exactly on our doorsteps, asking to be noticed.

But shrews cross our paths alright, even if we aren’t looking. They are among the most abundant of all our mammals. Aside from the water shrew, there are 42 million common shrews and 8.6 million pygmy shrews in Britain; a veritable army of voracious insect- and worm-guzzlers living at our feet. They prefer to live in long grass, dense shrubbery, and other places where it’s easy to hide.

And, of course, they choose the waterside, too. The water shrew, the largest and best-turned out of our three common species, with its smart white underside contrasting with business-suit-black above, is the most aquatic of the three. Although it is perfectly at home in undergrowth away from water, its signature hunting method is to immerse in still or slow-flowing water, diving down to depths of 2m or more for up to 30 seconds, to snap up crustaceans, insect larvae, snails, worms, and small vertebrates such as newts, frogs, and fish. It is the only British mammal adapted to tap into this underwater niche of small freshwater life.

As it happens, the water shrew can also tackle prey larger than itself, by means of its remarkable venomous saliva, which immobilizes frogs or fish. The venom is a neurotoxin, causing paralysis and disorders of the blood and respiratory system. It is toxic enough to be a very unpleasant skin irritatant in humans that may take days to subside.

The water shrew has several adaptations to its preferred aquatic lifestyle. The surface of each foot is fringed with stiff hairs, increasing the area of the limb, like a flipper, allowing this mite to swim efficiently. The tail also has stiff hairs on the underside, making it act like a rudder, for steering. The hairs on the body also trap a layer of air, keeping the shrew warm underwater, even in the middle of winter.

Shrews, although small, don’t hibernate. Instead they must remain active throughout the winter, requiring a meal at least every two hours, day and night. It isn’t easy to sustain, and many shrews don’t survive. In fact, almost every adult dies after a single breeding season, meaning that only the juveniles born during the spring and summer survive to the next season—just another extraordinary aspect of this overlooked animal’s life.

Dominic Couzens is one of Britain’s best-known wildlife writers. His work appears in numerous magazines, including BBC Wildlife and BBC Countryfile, and his books include Secret Lives of Garden Wildlife and Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland.

Horses of the World – Free downloadable poster!

We’re excited to introduce Horses of the World, a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. Written by avid equestrian Élise Rousseau and encompassing every horse breed in existence, this beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. To celebrate the release of this monumental work, we’re making available a free download of a full color poster featuring a gorgeous selection of breeds.

The book, a must-have for all who are interested in horses, provides a treatment of breeds organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total.

Download the poster here, and check this space each Tuesday for our new “Tuesday’s Trot” series.

 

Weekly Wanderlust: Australia

Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon

Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon

The only country which is also a continent, Australia is a nature-lover’s paradise. Ranging from the tropical swamps of northern Queensland to the arid deserts of the center of the continent, the diversity of Australia’s climate is extraordinary. Millions of years of isolation have allowed the evolution of countless animals, birds and plants found nowhere else in the world, including the emu, the koala, the kangaroo, and perhaps the oddest of all, the platypus: a mammal that lays eggs rather than giving birth. The biggest challenge facing visitors to Australia is the impossibility of seeing everything. Will you take in the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world? The monumental red sandstone rock formations of Uluru? The 110 million year old Daintree Rainforest? Or would you prefer to spend your evenings sitting on the quays of Sydney, the Opera House glowing in the setting sun, sipping a Barossa Valley Shiraz?

Koala in tree

The Koala

Wildlife of Australia book jacket Ideal for the nature-loving traveler, Wildlife of Australia is a handy photographic pocket guide to the most widely seen birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and habitats of Australia. The guide features more than 400 stunning color photographs, and coverage includes 350 birds, 70 mammals, 30 reptiles, and 16 frogs likely to be encountered in Australia’s major tourist destinations.
Birds of Australia book jacket Birds of Australia covers all 714 species of resident birds and regularly occurring migrants and features more than 1,100 stunning color photographs, including many photos of subspecies and plumage variations never before seen in a field guide. Detailed facing-page species accounts describe key identification features such as size, plumage, distribution, behavior, and voice. This one-of-a-kind guide also provides extensive habitat descriptions with a large number of accompanying photos.
Birds and Animals of Australia's Top End book jacket One of the most amazing and accessible wildlife-watching destinations on earth, the “Top End” of Australia’s Northern Territory is home to incredible birds and animals—from gaudy Red-collared Lorikeets to sinister Estuarine Crocodiles and raucous Black Flying-foxes. With this lavishly illustrated photographic field guide, Birds and Animals of Australia’s Top End, you will be able to identify the most common creatures and learn about their fascinating biology—from how Agile Wallaby mothers can pause their pregnancies to why Giant Frogs spend half the year buried underground in waterproof cocoons.
Why Australia Prospered book jacket Why Australia Prospered is the first comprehensive account of how Australia attained the world’s highest living standards within a few decades of European settlement, and how the nation has sustained an enviable level of income to the present.