Hero shrews have the most extreme spine in nature—and we don’t know why
The tiny African mammals have an interlocking and highly flexible spine, new x-rays reveal—but they only deepen the intrigue.
When the Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo introduced Western scientists to a smoky-gray, rat-size animal, they told tales of how a grown man could stand on the mammal’s back without hurting it.
That was back in 1910, and since then, studies of the animal in question—which came to be called the hero shrew—have cast light on what may account for such lore. (Another species of hero shrew was discovered, also in DRC, in 2013.)
In 2019, scientists led by Stephanie Smith, a mammologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, Illinois, took sophisticated x-rays of hero shrews. The scans showed that these little creatures have a spine unlike any other