January 9, 2009
Scientists Discover Rare, Venomous Shrew-like Mammal
Researchers have released new footage of one of the world's rarest mammals "“ a giant shrew-like creature that packs a venomous bite.
Discovered in the Caribbean, the Hispaniolan solenodon resembles a large shrew with a long thin snout.
The insect-eating mammal can be found only in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, researchers say.
"My colleagues were excited and thrilled when they found it in the trap," said Dr Richard Young, from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
"But despite a month's worth of trapping effort, they only ever caught a single individual."
Researchers studied the mammal by taking samples of its DNA and other information before releasing it back into its natural habitat.
The mammal has special teeth that allow it to deliver venom through its bite. It is unclear whether the "dental venom delivery systems" are for self-defense or predatory means.
Reports of the footage, taken in the summer of 2008 have already spurred the call for added conservation efforts for the mysterious mammal.
Still, little is known about its ecology, its behavior, its population status or its genetics, Young said, which makes conservation efforts hard to determine.
The Hispaniolan solenodon is one of the creatures highlighted by the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) Edge of Existence programme, which focuses its efforts on conservation plans for animals that are both endangered and evolutionarily distinctive.
"It is an amazing creature - it is one of the most evolutionary distinct mammals in the world," Dr Sam Turvey, a ZSL researcher involved with the program, told BBC News.
"Along with the other species of solenodon, which is found in Cuba (Solenodon cubanus), it is the only living mammal that can actually inject venom into their prey through specialized teeth," he said.
"The fossil record shows that some other now-extinct mammal groups also had so-called dental venom delivery systems. So this might have been a more general ancient mammalian characteristic that has been lost in most modern mammals, and is only retained in a couple of very ancient lineages."
Turvey said his team had previously considered the mammal to be extinct, but were surprised upon discovering it in the wild.
"They are still incredibly vulnerable and fragile. So it is really important to get back out there to work how these animals are surviving," said Turvey.
On The Net:
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Dominican Republic's Zoological National Park