Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 6, 2008

The Killer Shrew

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:06 pm

  Over the years, many creatures have been turned into the stuff of horror movie plots. Spiders, sharks, crocodiles, and even rats (remember Willard?) have been cast as evil forces of nature that only attack stupid people. Usually, for the sake of dramatic flare, these things have to either become gigantic or gather themselves into hordes of unimaginable proportion before they can go about their dastardly deeds. Birds of a different feather, for instance, had to flock together before Tippi Hedren considered them a threat in “The Birds.”

  In the B horror movie hey day of the 1950’s someone came to the conclusion that shrews were an untapped source of villainy. Apparently, someone read a book that said shrews had ravenous appetites and murderous ways. Such horrific promise certainly could not be overlooked.  From that kernel of an idea came a kernel of a movie called “The Killer Shrews.” The movie was released in 1959. It featured dogs dressed up as the “shrews”, a professor, a beautiful foreign chick and a crew of “other people” (you know, the ones you know will not make it to the end) who were trapped on an island full of ravenous genetically altered shrews. The two most memorable lines from that movie were “Senior, there ess a shrew in de basement,” and “don’t you even want to know about my accent?”

  I’ll give some credit to the writers of this movie. First of all, they showed remarkable restraint by supersizing these things to dog-size rather than elephant-size proportion– after all, shrews are among the tiniest of mammals, so Fido-sized is massive when that fact is considered. Secondly, when the professor explained that the escaped creatures will soon turn on each other and that all they had to do was hole up until they killed each other off, he was merely parroting scientific literature.  One such authoritative source states “if (the shrews) are not able to find food within about a 2 hour period, (they) will attack and eat each other.”  Another confidently says that shrews “are in a permanent state of raging.”  It is true that shrews can eat as much as 3 times their body weight in food every day.  They have tremendously high metabolisms. No wonder the writers felt confident with their plot line. It is very believable that a roaming band of killer shrews would still be hungry after eating everyone on the island and the horse.

  It was only a few weeks after I watched “The Killer Shrews” that a certain person in my house, who doesn’t want to be mentioned by name, was accosted by a Short-tailed Shrew (“Senior, there ees a shrew in de living room”). The tiny creature ran over her foot and thus condemned itself to death.  This certain person saw it earlier in the day and was willing to entertain my plea to let it slip quietly out the back porch door, which was left open. Unfortunately the creature failed to take the hint, performed the above act of personal space violation, and thus had to be caught in the jaws of death. 

  I introduce to you, ladies and gentlemen, that killer shrew (see above).  Short-tailed Shrews can get to be about 4 inches long, so among shrews they are relative giants (see here). Still, they are quite small and get mistaken for mice all the time.  They differ from these rodents in many ways, however.  First of all, they have pointy little snouts with pin-prick eyes and no obvious external ears.  Their short-cropped fur is velvety gray and, despite their name, their tail is quite short in comparison to the body.  Perhaps the biggest difference is their teeth. Mice have buck teeth and flat grinding molars while shrews are carnivores with 32 sharp little teeth and fang-like incisors.

  Pull down the lower lip of a dead shrew (they are much more co-operative that way) and you’ll see a hefty pair of lower incisors (see here). This type of shrew is in a group called the “red-toothed shrews” which possess colored teeth that make them look ominous. This shade is not the result of a bloody meal, it is only pigmented enamel.   There is a groove that runs between these incisors which acts as a conduit for injecting venomous saliva into their prey. Yes, short-tails are venomous.

  Located in the lower jaw, toxin glands exude a paralyzing agent that is employed to immobilize or kill prey outright. This type of shrew has been known to attack large prey such as mice, but their stock in trade is small invertebrate fare like worms, crickets and snails. A single bite from a Short-tail can immobilize a mealworm for up to 15 days. Whoa! This paralyzed food is stored for later consumption. Imagine the silent horror of seeing a pile of paralyzed snails. Those movie guys missed out on a great plot twist when they overlooked this little fact.

  Another fascinating shrew fact worth noting is that they have the ability to echo-locate.  Equipped with extremely poor vision and sense of smell, shrews send out ultra-sonic clicks to sense their environment. It’s too bad my little victim couldn’t have located the back door before it became a specimen.

  There are a good number of mammals on the planet that can echolocate, such as bats and whales, but only the European Water Shrew can share the claim to deadly spit. I definitely can see movie sequel potential here, perhaps “Taming of the Water Shrew.”

1 Comment

  1. Not so bad. Exciting points right here

    Comment by Tameika Brookskennedy — March 20, 2012 @ 11:15 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress