By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator
Not many people keep mammal life lists. Plenty of folks keep careful records of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, or reptiles and amphibians that they observe. But I suspect that the mammal family gets short shrift from the “listers” out there. A lot of that reason is because of how difficult it can be to observe mammals well in the wild. Sure you see deer, squirrels, and groundhogs, but have you ever seen a Least Shrew?
Up until a couple weeks ago, the answer for me was “No!” I’ve been fortunate to have brief glimpses of small rodents thorugh the years, mostly scampering Meadow Voles and skittering White-footed Deer Mice. I find small mammals to be fascinating since they form the prey base for the big critters we know well, like Red Foxes, Red-tailed Hawks, and Great-horned Owls. Most small mammals spend their time underground or otherwise hiding very well from these predators, and are exceptionally difficult to observe in their natural habitats. Photographing them alive(and in the open) is nearly impossible!
While working in the tree planting field at Middle Run Natural Area recently, Steve Johnas and I spotted a tiny brown mammal scampering through the grass. I ran over and managed to capture the little guy. It turned out to be a Least Shrew– at last! I’d seen a few dead specimens of this species, but now I was holding a real live one. And it felt like holding nothing! Soft, lustrous brown fur cloaked the body, and the incredibly-long snout looked comical. This appendage helps these insectivores sniff out their prey while hunting in fields and brushy meadows. The shrew seemed to grow comfortable with being handled, but I would not say that this was a case of the “Taming of the Shrew.” We let him go to see how he would go about his normal business.
We watched this diminutive mammal ramble along through the dried grass, its long snout guiding its exploration. Pausing to poke its nose into crevices, the shrew kept a frenetic pace as it searched for food. Lots of crickets and grasshoppers lurk in this field, and Least Shrews are known to open up the abdomens of these orthopterans and eat the internal organs. Sounds delicious!
The Least Shrew has a fast-burning metabolism and lives a very brief life. The oldest in captivity lived to the ripe age of 21 months, but most never make it to the 12-month mark. Mostly these creatures eat and reproduce during their short lifespan, so there’s little need to sleep and rest. Our smallest local mammal weighs in at around 5 grams(as much as a nickel) and attains a length of 3 inches, including the tiny tail.
We count ourselves lucky to have spent a bit of time with the amazing Least Shrew, an incredible native mammal. Maybe you’ll see one some day!
Middle Run Natural Area, north of Newark, is an 850-acre county-owned park. A reforestation project coordinated by the Delaware Nature Society over the past 20 years has helped to plant nearly 40,000 trees that provide over 50 acres of excellent early-successional habitat. A great diversity of wildlife benefits from this major conservation project, with Least Shrews just one of the amazing species that lives here.
This Sunday, November 14, we will be planting 1,500 trees at Middle Run as part of this volunteer-driven effort. If you’d like to help out, please click on this link for more information: