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Hero Shrew Found, One of “Most Bizarre Animals on Earth”

Watch out, Mighty Mouse: Scientists have found a new species of shrew with incredible strength.

Dubbed Thor’s hero shrew after the brawny god of strength in Norse mythology, Scutisorex thori is one of the most bizarre animals on Earth thanks to its supertough, interlocking spine, according to Bill Stanley, the director of collections and a zoologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, who helped identify the creature.

hero shrew picture

The new hero shrew found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by William Stanley, The Field Museum of Natural History

Found recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the shrew is only the second hero shrew known to science. The first, S. somereni, was found in the DRC in 1910, baffling scientists with a spine never before seen in any mammal. (See ”Largest Elephant Shrew Discovered in Africa.”)

Most mammals, including us, have about five vertebrae at the base of their backbones, with a few bony projections sticking out on each vertebra, explained Stanley. But the first known hero shrew, S. somereni, has 10 to 11 vertebrae with many more bony projections that lock together, giving it unparalleled power in the animal kingdom.

It’s so strong that, according to written accounts of DRC explorers in early 1900s, a man stood on the back of a hero shrew for five minutes, stepped off, and the animal walked away unharmed, Stanley said.

Stanley’s not sure if the story well, holds up—he hasn’t tried it himself—but the anecdote is not surprising considering the hero shrew’s reputation among the local Mangbetu people. The Mangbetu wear parts of the hero shrew as talismans, believing the animal’s resilience renders them invisible to spears and bullets—hence its name, hero shrew.

Why the Strong Back?

When Stanley first dissected the new shrew and found its superstrong spine, he was shocked.

shrew backbone picture

A picture of the new shrew’s skeleton shows its interlocked lower spine. Illustration by Velizar Simeonovski

“That’s when the shivers really ran down my back,” he said.

Not only had he found a second species of hero shrew, but the new animal may give some insight into how this odd backbone evolved. (See video: “Venomous ‘Giant Shrew’ Caught on Film.”)

For instance, Thor’s hero shrew has eight vertebrae in its lower back—closer to what a regular shrew would have, but not quite as many as the original species. What’s more, there are fewer bony projections on each side of the vertebrae than on the first hero shrew. So Stanley and team suspect Thor’s hero shrew may be a transitional form in the evolutionary history of hero shrews, suggesting that the spine evolved over a long period time, not relatively rapidly as some had proposed.

In addition, in the July 24 edition of Biology Letters, Stanley and colleagues offer a new theory for why these hero shrews’ have such strong backs—that the extra muscle allows the animal to access food-rich spots not accessible to other animals. (See “Moles, Shrews Can Smell Prey While Underwater, Study Suggests.”)

In the DRC, insects live under the parts of palm trees where leaves have broken off, leaving a hardened base that looks like a scar. It’s possible that shrews may use their powerful backbones to pry the leaf bases from the trunk and get to the tasty grubs underneath. However, Stanley cautioned, no one has seen the shrew actually do this.

In fact, like Superman or Batman, the private life of Thor’s hero shrew is still very much a mystery.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface on these things,” he said.

Comments

  1. Jeff
    United States
    December 27, 2013, 1:50 pm

    I like these little guys for fish bait.

  2. Gildas
    United States
    November 14, 2013, 8:24 pm

    we have a lot of these in my country.
    I’m from Gabon and I have killed so, many type of it.
    the black one is very stinky.

  3. Kieran
    November 6, 2013, 8:49 am

    I saw it on Brain Scoop first and now I see it here! SO exciting!

  4. DSmock
    California USA
    August 4, 2013, 6:12 pm

    Once again impressive work by Stanley and the Field Museum in announcing a new species and field research elucidating interesting and valuable zoological information on mammals. Although Stanley’s hypothesis is compelling, my personal working theory is that the more pronounced and stronger lumbar spine is some kind of aid in reproductive activity – if you know what I mean.

  5. Big Zucchini Mike
    Pennsylvania
    August 2, 2013, 10:30 am

    I also see evolution has deemed the red cape as impractical

  6. Mohammed Rafiq
    Bangalore, India
    July 30, 2013, 8:48 am

    Great creature ! and great piece of information. Long live Hero Shrew, hoping the that information that are not confirmed may be avoided in public domain for the simple reason that human being are the major threat for any being. Some soul out of curiosity may repeat the act only to reduce the species count by one.

  7. J B Christian
    North Augusta, SC, USA
    July 29, 2013, 11:34 pm

    Invisible? I think you meant to write, invincible. :-)

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      July 30, 2013, 10:52 am

      I think either works!

  8. Walter Roginski
    new jersey
    July 29, 2013, 8:06 pm

    I was given two sibling cats ,captured in the streets of a large city, at about 6 months of age. In one year they caught 10 shrews—9 young and 1 adult. These insect eaters are apparently wide spread in my acre of leaf litter. They also caught 10 snakes —7 survived as they “pretzel up” and are easily carried home. The sherws are not eaten as they emit an odor and are just brought home. The saving grace of these cats is the way they eat every insect except the stink bugs and the legs of daddy long legs. Can’t change 6 months of living on the street I guess.

  9. Fred Fine
    Canada
    July 29, 2013, 4:01 pm

    I don’t believe for a second that a man stood on the shrew and the shrew walked away. It’s spine might be strong, but it still has tiny ribs and leg bones. Even if those bones were made of high strength carbon steel they would break with a man standing on them.

  10. elmamouni
    Morocco
    July 29, 2013, 12:30 am

    before all of you start saying that african people not nice with animals ! ask yourself : do you know what happened in AFrica ? killing people and burning food ….they don’t care about animals ! this time animals are more expensive than a human life

  11. prodip kumar sahoo
    Guwahati, Assam, India
    July 28, 2013, 9:38 pm

    Great news. It inspires me more for my present study on rodent taxonomy.

    Prodip Kumar Sahoo
    Research Scholar
    Gauhati University

  12. Tariq
    Karachi
    July 28, 2013, 9:11 pm

    i love national geographic channal

  13. Pat Driver
    orange nsw Australia
    July 28, 2013, 8:15 pm

    Don’t know a lot about shrews, but shrews are considered to be one of our (ie humans & other mammals) basic ancestors. The initial template if you will. It might be interesting if there was a great diversity of shrew types (from which only a few led to further species – consider the pre-Cambrian diversity from which vertebrates came from) – the different number of vertebrae certainly suggest that there were a few unusual variants. Why did one type of shrew become the main template?

  14. John C
    United States
    July 28, 2013, 7:37 pm

    Seriously, if you don’t understand how science works and how the scientific method is applied to doing research of this kind, then perhaps you should avoid posting to science blogs. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not something you want to flaunt to the masses….especially if you’re from the U.S.

  15. john
    Timisoara
    July 28, 2013, 3:45 pm

    I have animals like this on the rootop of the house for about one year and half

  16. Zach
    Pretoria
    July 28, 2013, 3:30 pm

    This is Africa , you have to be strong or smart in order to survive here .

  17. Poisin
    July 28, 2013, 1:19 pm

    We have many in cameroon, some people it them. we call it “LONG MOUTH RAT” it has a very stinging smile and u can stand on it for 5 minute its true. To kill it you must hit the head or cute in half.

  18. Ryan
    Florida
    July 28, 2013, 1:13 pm

    I honestly can’t believe the comments on this page!
    This is not science.. Instead of talking about the unique characteristics of this creature, the evolutionary and biological implications everyone is talking politics! Some people are mad because it was named by a male god instead of a female and everyone else is upset because they dissected it! I dissected at least 5 frogs in high-school, that’s how we learn sometimes! It’s not like the scientist eradicated the species – there are plenty left running around!
    And whoever is upset about it being named after a male fictional character instead of a female – get over it! Go discover your own shrew and name it after whatever you want!
    I think it’s interesting, fascinating actually. As far as modern science has advanced and we still discover these new creatures everyday.

  19. setanta6
    July 28, 2013, 1:07 pm

    Shrews are cool! Some of the people on this forum….not so much. Perhaps they could be studied to discover what makes them such idi*ts.

  20. Cameron Anderson
    July 28, 2013, 1:01 pm

    I’m more concerned with the ongoing issue of “recently found”.
    The species wasn’t newly found, it was recently “discovered and classified by US”, as opposed to the local population which had been using parts as talismans for a long period of time.
    Until some land or species comes into “OUR” scientists view, does it not exist? :-(

  21. carlos jr sioco
    riyadh, saudi arabia
    July 28, 2013, 12:55 pm

    I think , i saw it in Philippines like this, when i use to farm mostly they are around in summer,

  22. Patrick Stewart
    Risa 3
    July 28, 2013, 12:53 pm

    I found one of these on Kardidion 2. Ugh, they’re so grosse I had to kill it for fun by stomping it and then playing ice hockey with it because that’s what starship captains do!!!

  23. dee
    mich
    July 28, 2013, 12:46 pm

    wow, maybe be evolved from the shrew?

  24. Paolina
    Germany
    July 28, 2013, 12:46 pm

    I cant believe some of teh retarded comments. I didn’t really get how big exactly the animal is.

  25. Kirk Girard
    California
    July 27, 2013, 7:45 pm

    Bravo Bill Stanley for extending our understanding of the animal kingdom. I’m not sure how our litle hero met her demise but the glimpse of a significant evolutionary turn is priceless. Thank you.

  26. Christine Dell'Amore
    July 25, 2013, 3:51 pm

    Thanks for your concern and comments, everyone. Please keep in mind that the scientists did not dissect a living animal, and the research was done on a preserved specimen.

  27. Derick the scientist
    Nairobi
    July 25, 2013, 1:48 pm

    Quite impressing as far as I am concerned. I dont understand the cynical comments made. Continue informing us Natgeo.

  28. Karen
    Houston
    July 25, 2013, 1:43 pm

    Oh no. I guess we better tell the native people of the Congo not to eat the shrew. That would be akin to studying it. Major no-no.

  29. Scientist Derick
    Kenya
    July 25, 2013, 1:42 pm

    Doesn’t this impress ? As far as I am concerned it does. I dont understand all the cynical comments I just read. Anyway NatGeo keep up the job of informing us.

  30. Brian R.
    July 25, 2013, 12:18 pm

    Before you assume that it was killed by the team how about reading their report. Perhaps you will notice that the samples were collected by “locals”. Whom are not always as nice to animals as some of us wish for them to be.

    So before you go protesting or crying out for animal rights do your research please:

    http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/9/5/20130486.full?sid=d7249986-ffdb-4477-bf85-bbf3cc5fc1dc

  31. John
    KY
    July 25, 2013, 9:15 am

    It’s lucky they found all those dead frogs we dissected in high school!

  32. Darcy
    Oklahoma
    July 25, 2013, 8:42 am

    Do you people honestly think some one would just kill some amazing animal just to cut it apart and see inside?
    First of all there are numerous laws and ethical codes prohibiting such methods! If they had the article would be about a scientist arrested for unethical dissection of a new species.
    Use your brain.

  33. Ima Ryma
    July 25, 2013, 5:43 am

    Thor’s hero shrew – what’s in a name?
    We got pro he and anti she.
    The male god of strength of Norse fame.
    And why not a heroine? Gee!
    A human female called a shrew
    Is certainly no compliment.
    But that’s what human males do do,
    Is make it all about the gent.
    The backbones of us girls are just
    As strong as those the boys do boast.
    And like most species, you can trust,
    We gals have to endure the most.

    Whatever species, he need know
    The scorn of she never lets go.

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      July 25, 2013, 8:56 am

      Thank you Ima, that male favoritism didn’t even occur to me. I’m glad you mentioned it. When I interview scientists I usually try to ask them about both male and female specimens—especially when they discover something like a new dinosaur. Often they’ll say, well this dinosaur used its unusual horns to impress females or fight males. That’s great but what did the female look like? I appreciate the reminder and I’ll be committed to this in the future. Cheers, Christine

  34. Dan
    July 24, 2013, 10:19 pm

    Do you people even know how science works?

  35. Lazlo R Toth
    July 24, 2013, 9:22 pm

    Uh… Walt? Where exactly does it say the shrew was alive when they found it? A specimen is a specimen. You’re the one assuming killing was involved.

  36. Jimmy Mac
    winnipeg
    July 24, 2013, 9:04 pm

    This is one shrew that won’t be tamed.

  37. Ken PItt
    Denver
    July 24, 2013, 8:26 pm

    Not sure what kind of personality shrews usually have, but this one looks kinda cute and friendly. Sure would like to meet one. I love animals.

  38. Local
    Orange County
    July 24, 2013, 8:23 pm

    bstanley@fieldmuseum.org is the guys address I think they found one and “hope” their maybe others. Why not take an x-ray was dissection really necessary? BUMMER!!

  39. PeriSoft
    July 24, 2013, 8:20 pm

    Any chance we can get them to run for Congress as Democrats? Being represented by a creature with some backbone would be a welcome change.

  40. Kenny Roger
    July 24, 2013, 8:11 pm

    Their skeletal system looks like human, maybe they evolved from apes too…

  41. Lynn Godfrey
    Arizona
    July 24, 2013, 6:40 pm

    Where are the transgenic folks when you need them? I would love to have a lower back that didn’t hurt all the time.

  42. Jasterthemaster
    AK
    July 24, 2013, 6:28 pm

    Walt, Actually you dont have it straight…. it was dead and he was dissecting it when he realized it was unique..

  43. Raven58
    AZ
    July 24, 2013, 6:04 pm

    Evolver, Even if they found a million of them what is the point of killing even 1? They could not wait till one died naturally.

  44. not walt
    MT
    July 24, 2013, 6:00 pm

    The poor guy who cut down the tree has always been bad mouthed by people who don’t know what actually happened. i suggest you look into it.

  45. Zac
    Daytona Beach, FL
    July 24, 2013, 5:39 pm

    Yes, but is it tamed?

  46. Sentinel Wolf
    Chicago, IL USA
    July 24, 2013, 5:37 pm

    Let’s poke it with a stick first!

  47. emmi
    July 24, 2013, 5:10 pm

    Walt, seriously? This is an entire species. There are more than one of them.

  48. kathryn
    Cali
    July 24, 2013, 5:08 pm

    LMAO – I second Walt Stewart. This is all insane, we just can’t help but destroy everything around us.

  49. Malav
    New York
    July 24, 2013, 5:05 pm

    I agree!
    what an atrocious act!
    Just because you are curious…KILL!
    Just because you cannot create…KILL!

  50. Evolver
    Chicago
    July 24, 2013, 5:04 pm

    Walt, perhaps the text of the article wasn’t quite clear. They didn’t find a single animal, they found a new *species* of hero shrew. I see what you’re thinking, that they found a single animal and killed it to dissect it, but that’s not the case.

  51. Walt Stewart
    Texas
    July 24, 2013, 4:19 pm

    Let me get this straight they find a unique shrew and then dissect it.
    Thats as bad as the scienist who killed the oldest living thing a tree to get its stuck core sample device loose

    Walt