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.

Tuesday’s Trot – Icelandic Horse

Good news for all the horse lovers out there! Starting this week in our new “Tuesday’s Trot” feature, we’re highlighting some fun facts about various horses from Horses of the World. Kicking it off today is the Icelandic Horse.

From page 32 in Horses of the World:

Iceland has only one breed of horse, but what a breed it is! The Icelandic is one of the most amazing horses in the world, with its incredible variety of colors and its five gaits. Iceland has developed its own equestrian culture, and a specific saddle for it. The horse plays a major role in Icelandic mythology and its great sagas. Some Europeans use the term “pony” to describe this small horse, but the term “pony” isn’t used in Iceland, just as it isn’t in many countries of the world.

Icelandic equitation is based on the breed’s specific gaits (here, the tölt).

 

Icelandic Saddle

5 things you should know about the Icelandic Horse:

1. The Icelandic is particularly ancient and pure due to the ban, since 982, on importing new horses into Iceland. The horses that leave Iceland don’t return. The Icelandic has thus not undergone any crossing.

2. Adapted to an extreme climate, the Icelandic is very resilient and very hardy. Many horses spend the harsh winter outdoors. It is an easy keeper.

3. The Icelandic is a very intelligent horse; it is calm and friendly, but independent and energetic.

4. One of the unique characteristics of the Icelandic is its additional gaits, the tölt and the flying amble. It is one of the only gaited horses native to Europe, as European breeders have eliminated this characteristic in many breeds.

5. A horse with a strong identity, the Icelandic has been introduced successfully into many countries beginning in the twentieth century. There are currently more than 180,000 Icelandics throughout the world.

 

Horses of the World
Élise Rousseau
Illustrated by Yann Le Bris
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Sample Entry

Horses of the World is 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. This beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. The treatment of breeds is 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—and color photographs can be found throughout the book.

Describing and depicting every horse breed in existence, Horses of the World will be treasured by all who are interested in these gorgeous animals.

 

A sneak peek at BIG PACIFIC, companion to upcoming PBS series

The companion five-part series on PBS: Big Pacific will air Wednesdays on PBS, June 21-July 19, 2017

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific by Rebecca Tansley breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before.

Illustrated in full color throughout, Big Pacific blends a wealth of stunning Ultra HD images with spellbinding storytelling to take you into a realm teeming with exotic life rarely witnessed up close—until now. Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers. Take a sneak peek here:

 

 

More than superstition: Happy Groundhog Day!

The groundhog may have no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, but it surely can enlighten us on animals’ reactions to changing weather patterns. According to biologist Daniel T. Blumstein, celebrating Groundhog Day is about more than a superstition. In the Washington Post, he notes, “Understanding how individual groundhogs respond to environmental change is essential if we want to predict how animals will react to global warming and other human-driven habitat shifts.”

And no worries if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, after all, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

To know more about this mysterious mammal, check out Roland W. Kays and Don E. Wilson’s book Mammals of North America, an indispensable guide for amateur naturalists and professional zoologists alike.


Mammals of North America
Second Edition
Roland W. Kays & Don E. Wilson
Introduction
Mammals of North America APP

Covering 20 species recognized since 2002 and including 13 new color plates, this fully revised edition of Mammals of North America illustrates all 462 known mammal species in the United States and Canada—each in beautiful color and accurate detail. With a more up-to-date species list than any other guide, improved facing-page descriptions, easier-to-read distribution maps, updated common and scientific names, and track and scat illustrations, this slim, light, and easy-to-use volume is the must-have source for identifying North American mammals.

 

 

Bird Fact Friday — Not so bird brained after all…

From page 161 of Bird Brain:

Bird Brain by Nathan Emery makes the case that birds are not as devoid of intelligence as has previously been thought. In fact, some can even be considered as smart as apes and dolphins. This concludes our Bird Fact Friday feature. Stay tuned for Horse Fact Friday starting in the new year!

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Birds storing food

From page 148 of Bird Brain:

Among social birds who cache their food, it is difficult to keep their hiding places a secret from other birds in their group. To get around this, they will move caches around to make the final hiding place difficult to determine. This strategy may have occurred accidentally in the past and resulted in a greater yield of recovered caches, or it may be a result of a deliberate attempt to deceive potential thieves.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Romancing a mate

From page 146 of Bird Brain:

Food sharing is a behavior at the heart of many avian pair bonds. Some males offer a potential partner a nuptial gift as a display of their ability to provide. In some cases, gift-giving continues throughout the pair’s life as a means of solidifying their bond.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Master toolmakers

From page 120 of Bird Brain:

New Caledonian crows sculpt their own tools from raw materials. The first type is made from the strong and flexible Pandanus leaf. A crow bites one end of an individual leaf and pulls off a long strip, detaching the piece. The tool has a sharpened point at one or both ends, and, depending on the leaf, a jagged edge. It is used to catch certain kinds of prey.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – How have bird eyes evolved?

From page 66 of Bird Brain:

Compared to most mammals, bird eyes are highly complex. They contain four color photoreceptors, or cones, capable of aiding the perception of a much wider frequency range of light wavelengths. Birds are even able to see across the entire visible color spectrum, including colors in the invisible spectrum that humans cannot see unaided. There are important reasons why birds have evolved this way, and Nathan Emery describes them in Bird Brain.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

The search for deep life on Earth… and what it means for Mars

Onstott_Deep LifeThe living inhabitants of the soil and seas are well known to biologists. We have long studied their food chains, charted their migration, and speculated about their evolutionary origins. But a mile down an unused tunnel in the Beatrix mine in South Africa, Tullis C. Onstott, Professor of Geosciences at Princeton and author of Deep Life, is on a quest for mysterious bacteria and microbes that require neither oxygen nor sun to survive. When they open up an old valve, water full of microbes and even little worms flows—a discovery with stunning implications. The New York Times has chronicled Onstott’s research in a feature that asks, was there ever life on Mars? And could it still exist far below the surface? That organisms are nourished by our own earth’s core, thriving in darkness encased in hard rock provides major insights:

The same conditions almost certainly exist on Mars. Drill a hole there, drop these organisms in, and they might happily multiply, fueled by chemical reactions in the rocks and drips of water.

“As long as you can get below the ice, no problems,” Dr. Onstott said. “They just need a little bit of water.”

But if life that arose on the surface of Mars billions of years ago indeed migrated underground, how long could it have survived, and more to the point, how can it be found? Kenneth Chang writes:

If life is deep underground, robotic spacecraft would not find them easily. NASA’s InSight spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2018, will carry an instrument that can burrow 16 feet into the ground, but it is essentially just a thermometer to measure the flow of heat to the surface. NASA’s next rover, launching in 2020, is largely a clone of Curiosity with different experiments. It will drill rock samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission, but those samples will be from rocks at the surface.

In the meantime, what can we learn deep in Earth’s mines? What do we know now about the energy required to sustain life underground? As Chang notes, if Beatrix is a guide, methane could be the answer:

As NASA’s Curiosity rover drove across Gale Crater a couple of years ago, it too detected a burp of methane that lasted a couple of months. But it has not detected any burps since.

Perhaps an underground population of methanogens and methanotrophs is creating, then destroying methane quickly, accounting for its sudden appearance and disappearance from the atmosphere. If Beatrix is a guide, the methane could be providing the energy for many other microbes.

Conventional wisdom is that Martian life, if it exists, would be limited to microbes. But that too is a guess. In the South African mine, the researchers also discovered a species of tiny worms eating the bacteria.
“It’s like Moby Dick in Lake Ontario,” Dr. Onstott said. “It was a big surprise to find something that big in a tiny fracture of a rock. The fact it would be down there in such a confined space slithering around is pretty amazing.”

A full account of Dr. Onstott’s work appears in the New York Times feature, Visions of Life on Mars in Earth’s Depths.

Read more about Deep Life: The Hunt for the Hidden Biology of Earth, Mars, and Beyond here.

Bird Fact Friday – Brain size isn’t everything…

From page 32 of Bird Brain:

To sustain flight, all parts of a bird are small and light—including their brains. They compensate for this reduction in mass in a number of ways; for example, they are able to generate new neurons when they need them.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – How are modern birds and mammals related?

From page 28 of Bird Brain:

Modern birds and mammals are separated by 300 million years of evolution. Their last common relative was a stem amniote, a creature with fully terrestrially adapted eggs, similar to a modern day amphibian. All modern families of mammals, reptiles, and birds evolved brains from the basic neural plan in this stem amniote.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.