by Malcolm Curtis | November 2, 2011 |
The world’s smallest mammal was recently sighted in Switzerland for the first time in more than a century. The Etruscan pigmy shrew, weighing just 1.8 grams, is an elusive creature, as Swiss zoologist Peter Vogel can testify.
Vogel, a retired professor from the University of Lausanne, spent 45 years trying to find one. This week, he announced that he had captured – and released – seven of them near Chiasso in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.
Vogel discovered the shrews in an abandoned vineyard, where they were living in rock walls. Such areas are ideally suited to the mammals, he told the Swiss news agency ATS.
The last previous recorded observation of an Etruscan pigmy shrew in Switzerland was in 1895, also in Ticino. Its size makes it difficult to spot, never mind capture.
Just four centimetres long, excluding the tail, the miniature shrews are capable of escaping from traps with openings as little as three millimetres high. Vogel designed a special one because conventional models were not small enough.
The shrews are “extremely rare” in Switzerland, he said, while noting that they are more common in Italy because they favor a Mediterranean climate. They have also been observed in other southern European countries and North Africa, although accurate population counts are hard to come by.
With grey and brown fur, the creatures are noted for their fast metabolism, which requires them to eat up to twice their body weight each day. They eat mostly insects and worms, as well as small invertebrates, such as lizards and rodents.
The shrews are preyed on themselves by owls, but scientists say their chief threat is human activity, such as farming, which destroys their habitat.