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I recently noticed something small and dead lying on the hiking and biking trail at Lake Metigoshe. It was obviously a small mammal, grayish brown, with the total length, including tail, of maybe three inches. It also had a long-pointed snout and small eyes. That is a shrew! Based on what I could determine, it was probably a masked shrew, which is the smallest and most common shrew in the state.

Shrews are among the smallest mammals. Because they are so small, they have a very high surface to volume ratio, which makes it difficult to retain heat. As a result, shrews have the highest metabolism of any mammal. Even with their dense coat of fur, they must stoke their biological furnaces constantly. I have read that they eat between one and three times their body weight every twenty-four hours. No leisurely meals for shrews. They live on the edge of starvation!

Shrews belong to the Order Insectivora which says something about what they eat. They prey on a variety of insects such as ants, grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets, as well as earthworm, and other invertebrates. They also forage for seeds and nuts. Their keen sense of smell, hearing, and touch help in finding prey.

It is interesting to note that although shrews would seem to be heavily preyed upon by hawks, owls, and other predators, they are not often consumed by these predators. I did not get down on my hands and knees to get a good whiff of the dead shrew, but apparently they have a nasty smell which probably functions in protection from predators and attracting mates. They also have a reputation for poisonous saliva, although the toxicity may actually be due to bacteria. At any rate, a shrew bite can produce painful swelling which may last for several days.

Be on the lookout for these smallest of mammals. They are active all through the year. But if you get a chance to handle one, alive or dead, you might want to pass it up. Their smell or perhaps bite will certainly not be pleasant experiences!

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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