200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 50: “A Tiny Creature With a Big Bite ”

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engraving of small mammals
Illustration from American Natural History of the Eastern Mole (Scalopus aquaticus, foreground), the North American Least Shrew (Cryptotis parva) and the Northern Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) The two shrews were described by Thomas Say.

A Tiny Creature With a Big Bite

American Natural History, written by Academy member and physician John Davidson Godman (1794–1830), represents one of the first comprehensive treatments of mammals in the United States. The book’s entries include anatomical descriptions of the animals and some observations of their behavior. In many cases, Godman depended on others for accounts of these mammals, but the shrew-mole (now commonly known as the Eastern mole, Scalopus aquaticus) afforded him the unusual opportunity to dissect specimens and personally observe live captive and wild animals.

He writes, “The Shrew-Mole when at rest bears more resemblance to a small stuff sack than to a living animal… But … this apparently shapeless mass is endowed with great activity and a surprising degree of strength.” Godman continues with his observations of this animal’s anatomy, diet, behaviors, and elaborate tunnel digging. He discusses at length how difficult it is to extract this diminutive creature from its burrow: “His broad and strong fore-paws are then struck outwards against the sides of the excavation, with all the energy of despair, and when the animal is finally dragged from its retreat, he frequently inflicts a severe bite on his disturber.”

Meet some other strange animals and hear about their wacky habits when you visit the Florence R. Foerderer Live Animal Center at the Academy!

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