Online Encyclopedia

SHREW

Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V24, Page 1016 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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SHREW,' a term applied to the species of the family Soricidae of the mammalian order insectivora (q.v.), but in the British Isles to the common and lesser shrews (Sorex araneus and S. minimus). The common shrew, or, properly, shrew-mouse, which in England is by far the commoner of the two, is a small animal 1 This word, whence comes the participial adjective " shrewd," astute, originally meant malicious, and, as applied to a woman, still means a vexatious scold. From their supposed venomous character it was applied to the Soricidae. young may be found in the nests; they are naked, blind and toothless at birth, but soon run about snapping at everything within reach. The alpine shrew (S. alpinus), restricted to the alpine region of Central Europe, is slightly longer than the common shrew and differs in its longer tail, which exceeds the length of the head and body, in the colour of the fur, which is dark on both surfaces, and in the large size of the upper antepenultimate premolar. The water-shrew (Neomys fodiens), the third species inhabiting England, differs from the common shrew in being larger with a shorter and broader muzzle, smaller eyes and larger feet adapted for swimming—the sides of the feet and toes being provided with comb-like fringes of stiff hairs. The tail is longer than the body, and has a fringe of moderately long regularly ranged hairs, which extend along the middle of the under surface from the end of the basal third to the extremity. The fur is long and dense, varying in colour in different individuals; the prevailing shades are dark, almost black, brown above, beneath more or less bright ashy tinged with yellowish; but occasionally we find individuals with the under surface dark-coloured. In the number and shape of the teeth the water-shrew differs from the common shrew: there is a premolar less on each side above; the bases of the teeth are more prolonged posteriorly; and their cusps are less stained brown, so that in old individuals they often appear white. This species is aquatic in habits, swimming and diving with agility. It frequents rivers and lakes, making burrows in the banks, from which when disturbed it escapes into the water. Its food consists of water insects and their larvae, small crustaceans and probably the fry of small fishes. It is generally distributed throughout England, is less common in Scotland and not recorded in Ireland. The geographical range of the common shrew is wide, extending eastwards through Europe and Asia to Amurland. The lesser shrew extends through Europe and Asia to Sakhalin Island; and specimens of the water-shrew have been brought from different parts of Europe and Asia as far east as the Altai. In Siberia the common shrew is abundant in the snow-clad wastes about the Olenek river within the arctic circle. Other species of red-toothed shrews are restricted chiefly to North America, where they are found in greater variety than in the Old World, though Neomys is not represented. Its place is taken by Sorex palusiris east of the Rocky Mountains, and S. hydrodromus in Unalaska Island, which, like the water-shrew, have fringes of hair on the feet, but the unfringed tail and dentition of the common shrew. Of the American forms S. bendiri is the largest. Other red-toothed shrews belonging to the genus Blarina, distinguished from Sorex by the dentition and the shortness of the tail, are common in North America. All red-toothed shrews (except the aquatic forms) closely resemble one another,in habits, but the short-tailed North American shrew supplements its insectivorous fare by feeding on beech nuts. In destroying numbers of slugs, insects and larvae, shrews aid the farmer and merit protection. Although their odour renders them safe from rapacious animals, they are destroyed in numbers by owls. (G. E. D.)
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