Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Scientists say they have discovered a new species of one of the most bizarre mammals on the planet.
A team from Chicago’s Field Museum, along with international collaborators, said in the journal Biology Letters that they have identified a new species of Hero Shrew. This new species, named Scutisorex thori, possesses characteristics that have allowed scientists to come up with a novel hypothesis for the function of the animals’ crazy lower spine.
Hero Shrews have interlocking vertebrae that render the spine four to five times more robust relative to body mass. Scientists have not witnessed this unique characteristic in another mammal. This arrangement of the spine allows the animal to have extraordinary strength.
“This shrew first came to light when explorers came to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Bill Stanley, Director of Collections and zoologist at the Field Museum, said in a recent statement. “The explorers watched in amazement as a full-grown man stood on the back of the Hero Shrew, and the animal walked away, unharmed.”
The new species found represents a possible intermediate between the original Hero Shrew and other shrews, since it possess an interlocking spine but with fewer lower vertebrae.
“You and I have five lumbar vertebrae,” said Stanley. “And so do most other mammals, but the Hero Shrew at least 10. Scutisorex thori has eight vertebrae, and fewer lateral processes than the original species.”
Scutisorex thori was found in the lowland forest near the Tshuapa River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The scientists suggest that these shrews position themselves between the trunk and leaf bases of Palms, using their spine to exert force and gain access to concentrated sources of beetle larvae that are protected from predation. This adaptation may also allow the animals to lift logs or rocks to access invertebrates.
The new species was named in honor of Thorvald “Thor” Holmes, Jr. of the Humboldt State University Vertebrate Museum. The suggested name is “Thor’s Hero Shrew.”
“The Age of Discovery is not over,” said Stanley. “In fact, discoveries such as these happen in natural history collections, like the ones that we have at The Field Museum. In addition, hypotheses such as the one that we’ve generated concerning the functional significance of the Hero Shrew’s spine fuel the scientific machine. We can’t wait to see the results of further scientific studies that test the ideas presented in this article.”