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Etruscan Shrew (Suncus etruscus)

Etruscan Shrew (Suncus etruscus)

Alright, this is a little bit of a stretch for Etruscan week, but the Etruscan shrew (Suncus etruscus) is fascinating! It is the smallest mammal by mass weighing an average of only 1.8 grams (0.063 oz) (although there are certain bats with smaller skulls). The tiny creature does indeed live in what was once Etruria…although it admittedly also lives around the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Minor, across Southeast Asia, and down into Malaysia.  There are also invasive colonies in Nigeria (though goodness knows how they got there).

Etruscan Shrew Range

Etruscan Shrew Range

The shrew has a fierce metabolism: its little heart beats 1511 times per minute (25 beats a second). It must eat up to twice its own body weight every day to stoke its internal fires. I like food–but I would wear down fast eating a thousand hamburgers a day. Once I watched a documentary about the top ten super predators—and shrews weighed in at number one. They only eat live food which they catch—and they catch between 20 and 30 prey animals a day. This becomes all the more impressive when one considers that they eat insects (which have wings and are sometimes bigger than the shrew) as well as spiders and myriapods which are armed with terrible stings and venoms. Additionally the shrew dines on immature amphibians, baby rodents, worms, and larvae.

Etruscan Shrew with Snail

Etruscan Shrew with Snail

Etruscan shrews are largely nocturnal and crepuscular. Because of their poor eyesight, they have acute hearing, highly sensitive whiskers, and an amazing sense of smell: indeed, their long tin noses are mobile and can move about quite sinuously. In winter their fur grows long and they sometimes undergo periods of temporary hibernation when their body temperature drops down to 12 °C (54 °F). They are only social during mating season when a pair will live together through the 27-28 day gestation and until the cubs are independent (which is when they are three to four weeks of age). Litters range from two to six cubs. Because they are so small (and so widespread), Etruscan shrews are preyed on by all manner of snakes, cats, lizards, birds, and other predators. Their particular bane seems to be owls. Naturally, none of these predators are as dangerous to the overall species as humankind is. Etruscan shrews now have a non-contiguous range because of agriculture and habitat loss (although they seem to enjoy human ruins). They live to two years of age in captivity—although owls usually prevent death from old age in the wild.

The Etruscan Shrew is cute in its own way...

The Etruscan Shrew is cute in its own way…

If we were not so jaded, we would recognize how remarkable and intense the Etruscan shrew is. Just writing about it, I feel like I have been describing an alien lifeform—a clever cunning creature which fits in a teaspoon. Except when it hibernates, it must endlessly devour. We will return to the art and society of ancient Etruria tomorrow, but right now spare a moment to reflect on the extraordinary nature of our strange mammal kin!

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Last week we wrote about the strange Monito del monte—an arboreal marsupial which lives in the Valdivian temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina.  This week’s headlines are filled with exciting zoo news related to those strange forests.  A baby southern pudú (Pudu puda) was born in the Queens zoo a month ago (zoos delay the announcement of newborns in order to dramatize public introductions).  Pudús are the world’s tiniest deer: adults weigh up to 12 kilograms (26 lb), although the mightiest stags can sometimes reach 13.4 kilograms (30 lb) and loom up to 44 centimeters (17 in) tall.  Female pudús lack antlers, however the stags have tiny antlers with no forks (which can measure up to 7.5 centimeters (3.0 inches) long).  There are two species in this genus of cervids:  the southern pudú (Pudu puda) & the northern pudú (Pudu mephistophiles) which are similar in appearance and habit (although the northern pudú is smaller, and only gets up to 33 cm (13 inches) in height).

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

Pudús hide in the low growing vegetation of the miniature forests where they dwell and they feed on the same vegetation by pulling it down with their hooves or by climbing stumps and low branches to reach the leaves.  Their vocalizations are as adorable as they themselves are: the diminutive deer bark when they are alarmed.  If they become angry, their fur bristles and they shiver.  This display of wrath is not especially intimidating and many predators prey on pudús, including owls, foxes, and tiny rainforest cats (and occasionally formidable pumas).  Unfortunately, humans have introduced dogs and red deer to the delicate Andean cloud forests where the deer live and these invaders are respectively overhunting and outcompeting the winsome little deer.

One month old pudú fawn

One month old pudú fawn

I am extremely happy that there is a little pudú fawn living in Queens.  I am also glad another animal from the temperate rainforests of South Chile (the last surviving remnant of the rainforests of Antarctica) is in the news.  I desperately wish John D. Dawson would paint a picture of the eco-region so that I truly could show you how strange and lovely the plants and animals there are.  But, until that happy occasion, here is another pudú photo.

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

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By far the most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper involves leprechauns.   Because of this fact, the sporadic generic tips I receive from WordPress usually include advice like “maybe you should consider writing more about this topic.”  This involves a conundrum, because leprechauns are totally made up.   What else is there to be said about the little green fairy-folk without reviewing weird B movies or randomly posting leprechaun tattoos?

Mill Ends Park (with human being added for scale)

Mill Ends Park (with human being added for scale)

Fortunately today’s news has come to my aid.  Apparently the world’s smallest park, Mill Ends Park, in Portland, Oregon was victimized by tree-rustlers who stole 100% of the park’s forest.  This seems like grim news, but Mill Ends Park is very small indeed: the entire (perfectly circular) park measures 2 feet in diameter.  Because of its dinky 452 square inch area, Mill Ends Park only contained one small tree.  A drunkard might have fallen on it (the park is located on a traffic island in the midst of a busy intersection) or pranksters might have taken it away to a container garden.  Maybe a German industrialist now has the little tree in some weird freaky terrarium…

Mill Ends Park with Dick Fagan

Mill Ends Park with Dick Fagan

Anyway, you are probably wondering why Portland has a park which is smaller than a large pizza and what exactly this has to do with imaginary fairy cobblers from Ireland.  It turns out that Mill Ends Park was the literary confabulation of journalist Dick Fagan.  After returning from World War II, Fagan began writing a blog (except they were called “newspaper columns” back then, and people were actually paid for them).  In 1948, the city of Portland had dug a hole to install a street light on the median of SW Naito Parkway, but due to the exigencies of the world, the light never materialized.  Fagan became obsessed with the pathetic little mud pit and began planting flowers in it and rhapsodizing about fantasy beings who lived there (whom only he could see).   Fagan’s story of the park’s creation is a classic leprechaun tale.  While Fagan was writing in his office, he saw a leprechaun, Scott O’Toole, digging the original hole (presumably to bury treasure or access a burial mound or accomplish some such leprechaun errand).  Fagan ran out of the building and apprehended the little man and thus earned a wish.  As mentioned, Fagan was a writer, so obviously gold was not his prime motivation.  He (Fagan) asked the leprechaun (Scott O’Toole) to be granted his very own park.  Since the journalist failed to specify the size of the park, the leprechaun granted him the tiny hole.

Documentary Photo of the Park's Founding (AP)

Documentary Photo of the Park’s Founding (AP)

Fagan continued to write about the “park” and its resident leprechaun colony for the next two decades using it as a metaphor for various urban issues or just as a convenient frippery when he couldn’t think of anything to write about (a purpose which the park still serves for contemporary writers).  In 1976, the city posthumously honored the writer by officially making the tiny space a city park.  The little park frequently features in various frivolous japes such as protests by pipe-cleaner people, the delivery of a post-it sized Ferris wheel by a full-sized crane, and overblown marching band festivities out of scale with the microcosm.

Mill Ends Park at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Mill Ends Park at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

True to form, the Portland Park Department was appalled at the recent deforestation and sprang into action by planting a Douglas fir sapling in Mill End Park.  Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are the second tallest conifers on Earth, and grow to a whopping  60–75 meters (200–246 ft) in height so it is unclear how this situation will play out over time, but presumably Patrick O’Toole and his extended Irish American family will be on hand to ensure that everything turns out OK.

A Douglas Fir with human for scale (photographed by zoopenguinwatcher)

A Douglas Fir with human for scale (photographed by zoopenguinwatcher)

Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

The Barbados threadsnake–the smallest known snake in the world

The smallest known snake in the world is the Barbados Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae), a species of blind threadsnake so small they were only discovered in 2008 (despite living on a heavily populated, highly studied island).  The adult snakes measure only 10 cm, (4 inches) long.  Herpetologists believe these tiny snakes are at threshold of viable size for snakes: if they were any smaller they would not be able to hunt or reproduce.

Female Barbados threadsnakes lay a single egg which is huge relative to the size of the mother. The newly hatched snakes are already half as large as adults.  Like caecilians or other blind snakes, Barbados threadsnakes are fossorial–they live and hunt underground (which is one of the reasons it took so long to find them).  The little threadsnakes live on the larvae of ants and termites.

The island of Barbados is mostly covered with cities, houses, farms, and roads

Not only are Barbados threadsnakes miniscule.  Their remaining forest territory is tiny. Barbados is heavily developed and no original old growth forests exist.  The threadsnakes live in secondary forests which regrew from the vestiges of long-vanished woods.  Their entire habitat is thought to be no more than a square kilometer or two.

Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus)

One of the smallest of all mammals is the Lesser bamboo bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) also known as the bumblebee bat which lives throughout Southeast Asia.  The animals range from India and China down through Myanmar, throughout the Malaysian Peninsula, and across the island chains of Indonesia and the Philippines.  The tiny flying creature is ridiculously small and measures only 40 millimetres (1.6 inches) in length with a wingspan of 150 millimetres (5.9 inches). An adult bat weighs approximately 1.5 grams–only slightly more than a paper clip.

Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) emerging from daytime hideout

As you will notice from the photo, the bamboo bat has a flat skull.  This is to aid the creature as it crawls into its daytime hideout—a single segment of bamboo—which the bat is capable of squeezing into through cracks of as little as 4 millimeters in width (if you didn’t pull out your desk ruler earlier to assess the size of this bat, you should do so now to remind yourself how small 4 millimeters is).  Like most vesper bats, the lesser bamboo bat lives on flying insects which it catches in the dark night skies by means of sonar and extraordinary flying prowess.  The lesser bamboo bat is said to have a particular relish for termite swarms.

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