Monday, May 31, 2010

The Least of the Mammals

From our copy of Ernest Ingersoll's 1884 collection Country Cousins...

These smallest of all the great company of
mammals conceal themselves from the student with true coquetry, baffling nearly all his efforts to get a glimpse at them. Nevertheless they are widespread, numerous, and sometimes familiar, occasionally making their home in the wall of a house-cellar or about the barn.

In color and form the shrew suggests a house-mouse, but his nose and teeth declare him of the entirely different race of Insectivora -- a companion to "the moles and the bats." No part of the world (save, possibly, South America) seems to lack representatives of the shrew family, but its stronghold is in northern regions. America owns a dozen or so doubtfully defined species, grouped by Coues into three genera --
Neosorex, Sorex, and Blarina.

The whole shape and organization of these little creatures show that they live in burrows. The proboscis-like nose -- cartilaginous, tough, and flexible -- is fit for probing without injury into all sorts of crannies, and for forcing a way through leaves, tangled grass, and loose soil. The feet, nevertheless, though compact and strong, are not modified into such a combination of pick and shovel as the moles carry, but are mouse-like.

Like the kinglet and hummingbird, who, though pygmies among their kind, begin and end a fight with an impetuous fury no eagle could exceed, this diminutive quadruped feels that he has courage as big as a lion's. It is rare that two strangers meet without a battle. ... This courage will explain how the small creature can attack and conquer frogs and other animals far larger than itself, as, according to European writers, it is well known to do.

It is extremely difficult to keep them alive in captivity.

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