A New Hero: Another Example of the Most Bizarre Mammalian Spine on Earth

Over a century ago, explorers in the Democratic Republic of Congo noted a strangely large and hairy shrew – that’s right, a shrew. When they commented on the shrew to the locals, they were told, “We wear this animal as a talisman around our necks, so that we will be invincible.” The explorers, confused as to how such an animal could be thought to make a person invincible, watched in amazement as a full-grown man stood on the back of the shrew for over five minutes, and the animal walked away, unharmed!

Thus, the shrew came to be called the Hero Shrew. Just this week, Field Museum scientists and international collaborators identified a new species of Hero Shrew – the mammal with the most bizarre backbone on Earth.

Its name? Thor’s Hero Shrew.

The remarkable spine of the Hero Shrew is unique among mammals, in that the lower vertebrae are both wider and longer, than those of other mammals. This gives the animal extraordinary strength! In fact, the unique vertebrae of the Hero Shrew make the spine up to four times more robust than other mammals. It’s no wonder the authors gave it a name that invokes Thor, the god of strength in Norse mythology!

Until now, there have been no other species of the Hero Shrew, and the spine has been an enigma to scientists, because it provides no known advantage to the animal. Now, however, scientists suggest that these shrews may position themselves between the trunk and leaf bases of Palms, and use their unique spine to pry the leaf base away from the trunk and gain access to grubs that are otherwise hidden from predators.

The specimen now residing at The Field Museum is a holotype (meaning the single physical example of this particular species that was originally used in its identification), so scientists around the world will use this very shrew as the golden standard for any future research done on this species.

Discover more about mammals research at The Field Museum.