Shrews tiny, diverse and widespread

October 16, 2007 

Nine species of shrews are found in a wide swath over Washington state, from sea level to mountain meadows. They are the state’s smallest mammals — the tiniest, the pygmy shrew, is the size of a thumb — and, though widespread, they are the least-known of the mammals.

Shrews resemble mice, except their muzzles are long and pointed and their eyes are tiny. Most are brownish or blackish in color with pale bellies. They are about half the size of adult mice.

Telling one shrew from another is difficult. The one pictured here is likely Sorex vagrans, which is commonly known as the vagrant shrew or wandering shrew. Experts need to see the skull to peer at a tooth, the fourth unicuspid, because its size helps differentiate between common species.

That means the shrew pictured also could be Sorex cinereus, the masked shrew, or Sorex obscurus, the dusky shrew.

The vagrant shrew is about four inches long, the most widespread of the native shrews, and is found in moist habitats — from gardens to wet marshes to streamsides and forests.

In fact, all shrews make their homes in moist places. They eat insects, spiders, slugs and other small invertebrates. They are rarely considered pests, though they have been known to enter homes.

Sources: Dave Pehling, WSU Extension Snohomish County; The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife article adapted from Russell Link’s “Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest”

Reach Kie Relyea at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2234.

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