For humans, the poison secreted from the bite of a shrew may cause pain that lasts for several days, although the dose is far too small to be lethal.
Species: Elliot’s short-tailed shrew
Scientific name: Blarina hylophaga
Claim to fame: All many people know about the shrew is that its name was used in the title of a Shakespearian comedy (although “Taming of the Shrew” had nothing to do with this small mammal). Besides their literary notoriety, shrews have the much lesser-known reputation of being the world’s only venomous mammals. For humans, the poison secreted from the bite of a shrew may cause pain that lasts for several days, although the dose is far too small to be lethal. (Don’t worry - the instances of humans being bitten by shrews are extremely rare. The only times humans are bitten by these small creatures are when we try to catch and handle them.) Shrews are also known for their incredibly high metabolism. Shrews must eat almost constantly in order to survive.
Species status: Short-tailed shrews are abundant throughout Missouri.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the Elliot’s short-tailed shrew was written by man whom the shrew is named after, American zoologist Daniel Giraud Elliot, in 1899.
Family matters: Short-tailed shrews belong to the mammal family Soricidae, which includes all species of shrews. Missouri is home to six species of shrews. There are three species of short-tailed shrews in the state; the northern short-tailed shrew, southern short-tailed shrew and Elliot’s short-tailed shrew. The range of these three species overlap, but the Elliot’s short-tailed shrew is the most common in this part of the state. The characteristics and natural histories of these three species are similar.
Length: 3 to 5 inches
Diet: Nearly the entire diet of shrews consists of insects, earthworms, snails, slugs, centipedes, millipedes and spiders. Salamanders, small snakes, mice and small birds are sometimes also eaten. Shrews paralyze their prey using the poison contained in their saliva.
Weight: One-half to 1 ounce
Distinguishing characteristics: The fur of short-tailed shrews is dark brown on the back, blending to gray on the belly. They have long, pointed snouts and tiny black eyes. Shrews have very poor vision. In hunting, shrews use their keen sense of touch to locate prey. It’s also believed that like bats, shrews may use echo-location to find prey. Shrews emit ultra-sonic calls which, it’s theorized, help them locate prey; especially in low-light conditions. Short-tailed shrews have a heart rate of 160 beats per minute, which sounds rapid, but pales in comparison’s to the least shrew’s rate of more than 1,000 heart beats per minute. (An adult human’s heart rate is around 70 beats per minute.) Shrews have a breathing rate of 140-164 times per minutes. (A human’s respiration rate is 12 to 20 times per minute.)
Life span: It’s presumed most shrews live no longer than one year in the wild.
Habitat: Short-tailed shrews live in dark, damp or wet localities or in fields covered with heavy, weedy growth. Shrews run about the surface of the ground and also tunnel in the moist soil found under old logs and leaf cover. They also use tunnels of other mammals.
Life cycle: The breeding season of the short-tailed shrew extends from early spring until late fall. Most adult females have from one to four litters annually. The gestation period is 21-22 days; from three to 10 offspring are born per litter. Young shrews are well-grown at one month and are soon on their own. Females reach sexual maturity and begin to breed at six weeks of age; males reach sexual maturity at 12 weeks.