By Harold Allison
The Washington Times-Herald
---- — Sometimes it is hard to tell some of our small Indiana mammals apart. Mice, moles, voles and shrews are all very similar in appearance.
Recently I have received some calls about little mammals that the callers had found dead in their yard, apparently killed by their cats but not eaten. From the description given me it was apparent they were shrews, one of our state’s most interesting little animals.
Webster’s Dictionary says a shrew is a “scolding woman,” and to be shrewish is “having an irritable disposition” or being “ill-tempered.” Well in humans this may be true, but in nature, while a shrew does have some of these characteristics, it is also an often overlooked segment of our Hoosier natural heritage.
Shrews are soft-furred, small, mouse-like animals with long noses. This is one way to tell them from mice. The trick is to tell one species of shrew from the other five species native to Indiana. Worldwide there are 312 kinds of shrews.
In Indiana we have the masked, smoky, pigmy, southeastern and northern short-tailed and least shrews. All look alike to me and it takes an expert to really tell what shrew you have found.
Shrews live to eat. They have such a high metabolic rate that they have to eat almost all the time or they will die. It is rare for a shrew to live longer than a year. Their heart rate can be as high as 1,100 beats a minute and respirations reach 250 a minute. Think what it would be like if ours were this rapid.
Shrews can be high strung and rather ill-tempered. They are always looking for something to eat and if you get in their way a shrew can be quite aggravated. There are some recorded cases of a shrew becoming so upset that they died of an apparent heart attack. This should be a good lesson for high-strung humans.
While little known to the average person, shrews are quite common. If you really want to find one just look where if you were a shrew would be the best place to find insects, worms, other invertebrates or some fungus or plant you would want to consume.
I love to watch a little shrew at work. They will squeak and wiggle their noses while they sniff trying to find something to eat. With their long noses, little eyes, and rapid movements they are so cute, but are a terror to the creatures they seek out to eat.
They are active all year as they must eat or die. Look for them in grassy areas and under old logs, boards or sites with a lot of debris littering the ground.
While some carnivores do catch and consume shrews, most cats and dogs may kill one but seldom eat their kill. This may be due to glands that the shrew has that imparts a rather vile odor to the body of the shrew.
As do bats, it is believed that some shrews use a form of echolocation as a navigational aid.
Both the least shrew and the northern short-tailed shrew are found across most of Indiana. The latter variety is our most common species. The other species have a more limited range. The masked shrew is rather common where found, but its range is spotty and may not be found in some sections of Indiana. The smoky shrew was only discovered in Indiana in 1981. It is apparently only in the hill country of south central Hoosierland.
As with the smoky shrew, the pygmy shrew, our smallest shrew, was not found in Indiana until the 1980s. The first one was discovered in Crawford County and is also only known from the southern hill country.
The southeastern shrew is only known from 25 counties in the southwestern section of our state. No matter where you live in Indiana you have at least one species of shrew near you.
This active little animal lives to eat and it is a shame it has such a short life span as it is indeed one of our most interesting little Hoosier mammals.