Plants and Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2015

North American Least Shrew

pa 01-2015The least shrew (Cryptotis parva ) is one of the smallest mammals in Missouri, and until last winter I had never encountered one. I had just walked out the door at sunrise when I found the tiny shrew rustling about in the leaf litter next to our patio. I had seen other shrews, much larger, and gray in color, but I was taken by the reddish brown fur of this one. I caught the wee shrew for a closer look, and after consultation with a wildlife biologist, determined it to be a least shrew.

As I handled the shrew, I was surprised by its gentle nature because most descriptions of shrews include adjectives such as, “belligerent” or “pugnacious.” The nervous shrew scrambled through my fingers in search of an exit route, much like that of a field mouse, but it wasn’t aggressive at all. I suppose most of the behaviors of shrews that have been described in guides, such as The Wild Mammals of Missouri by Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz, refer to their interactions with other shrews and animals that are closer to their own size.

The least shrew measures about 3 inches long and has a long, pointed snout and tiny black eyes like other shrews. Its coat is brown, even darker in winter, with gray underparts. Although seldom seen by man, they live throughout Missouri. Least shrews, which prefer dry fallow fields such as those around my home, often use burrows and tunnels of neighboring rodents, but they spend some of their time foraging on the surface. They sometimes dig their own tunnels, which may be just beneath the surface or much deeper.

Although some shrews possess a powerful poison in their saliva that is used to subdue prey, the least shrew is not so equipped; instead it depends on expert hunting skills, often going for the vulnerable joints of its prey’s appendages, according to The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Their diet includes small insects, snails, slugs, earthworms, and spiders. Like other shrews, the least shrew has poor eyesight and depends on a well-developed sense of touch. Reproduction occurs throughout much of the year and several litters of young, which measure less than an inch at birth, are produced.

Least shrews have been described as having a pungent odor, due to powerful scent glands, but I didn’t detect any odor from the one I found. They also produce a variety of sounds, described as “puts,” and “clicks,” but I didn’t hear a peep from my specimen. According to research, least shrews are known to use a form of echolocation to explore tunnels but probably not to search for food.

I was fortunate to have my camera in hand as I released the diminutive shrew where I found it. I was impressed at how fast it disappeared into the grass, allowing only two shutter clicks before fading away. I was confident that it was none the worse for wear after its first encounter with a meddlesome giant.

—Story and photograph by Danny Brown

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler