New shrew has cool name, cooler spine

Scientists working in Africa have discovered a new species of shrew that’s stronger than its little body leads on, and they've given it a fitting name. The “hero shrew” is known for its unique spine, which is unusually thick for its size and has vertebrae that interlock like clasping hands. Locals reported to the researchers that the backbone is so strong that a full-grown man can stand on the animal without hurting its back.

Now, it has a sister species that’s been given an appropriately strong-sounding name.

An international team of researchers in the village of Baleko, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, made a surprising find: a slightly different shrew with a similarly "heroic" backbone. Today inBiology Letters, they introduce Thor's hero shrew (S. thori), named for mammalogist Thorvald Holmes, but invoking the Norse god of strength. The new species (pictured) has a smaller and less bumpy skull; flatter ribs; and shorter, silkier fur than its sister species, the team reports, but genetic tests and x-rays reveal that it's undeniably Scutisorex [the shrews’ genus] …After exploring the shrews' swampy palm forests habitat, the researchers also have a new guess about why the spine evolved: They suggest that the creatures might wedge themselves between the trunk of a palm tree and the base of its leaves, then use the strength and flexion of their muscular spine to force open this crevice, revealing insect larvae. [ScienceNow]