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.