by Graham Pierrepoint
In a month where we have not only been told that the universe ‘shouldn’t exist’, and that we are closer and closer to finding an elusive ninth planet amongst our stars, it is encouraging to see that there are still a few truly bizarre and oddly inspiring stories still taking place on our good, green Earth. The animal kingdom is truly fascinating – and we have only started to scratch the surface of understanding it fully, according to recent revelations about the tiny shrew.
The shrew is a common rodent which can be found in the wild across Europe and Asia – and researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, have found that is has a curious technique to help it save energy during the colder months – and, be warned (though the headline has rather spoiled this already), the method is fairly bizarre!
Having examined several shrews found in Germany, the researchers found that the mammals exhibited braincase shrinkage ▶ from summer to winter. At around 15% shrinkage on average occurred ahead of the winter months, with re-expansion occurring ahead of summer by up to 20%. It is fascinating news – as shrew body mass is thought to shrink and expand, too, from season to season. Sadly, wild shrews live barely more than a year – making their short time on the planet all the more fascinating.
It’s thought that the shrew brain shrinkage occurs due to their need to conserve energy to survive the winter. With smaller bodies, and smaller brains, there is less need for energy – and therefore, less need to hunt for food. This methodology is fairly genius – as it means that the tiniest of shrews won’t have to risk venturing out into the cold snap to boost their energy levels. The study, published in Current Biology, suggests that shrews can generally do this out of necessity – meaning that they can effectively live to the end of their expected lifespan without any nasty repercussions.
It’s not clear quite how the shrew is able to be so flexible with its own size – humans, of course, benefit from rigid structuring – but it seems these little critters have the ability to morph with the season – the incredible shrinking animal, it would seem. While the ‘Ant-Man’ of the wild may not be big, or brash, or live for too long, it holds plenty of neat little tricks we’d be fascinated to try out ourselves!