My Little Friend With The Little Teeth
by Rachel Shopper
Oh, I really hope it will be there. Fingers crossed. I am walking home from class, rounding the edge of the house. My feet crunch on the gravel driveway, which, dry for most of this past week, is now saturated with winter rain. My eyes scan the gravel as I hold my breath, hoping to find…a squashed, desiccated rodent body!
Hallelujah! It’s still there. It’s been dead for about a week and a half, and today it is a shadow of its former corpse. Though not totally rotting, its jaw is broken and it has obviously been run over by a car at least once. I’ve probably stepped on it in the dark.
I grab a stick, squat down, and carefully pry open its jaw. I dig around until I reveal several small, gleaming white teeth. “Aha!” I cry out, victorious at last.
What was it, exactly, that led me to this driveway, squatting in the rain, gleefully inspecting a torn-up animal body as though I had just discovered the Rosetta Stone?
Maybe it began one day a week and a half ago, as I was walking across the driveway. I noticed the creature, and bent down to inspect it. It was a tiny rodent about the size of a baby’s foot, with dark grey fur and little white hands with little white claws. It had a rounded, rather long snout, and a tail that was thinly spiked with more dark grey fur.
I told a friend about it that afternoon. “I think it’s a mole”, I said. I opened up a guidebook and found a picture of it. “Yes, that’s just what it looked like! I knew it was a mole!” And then I read the caption underneath the picture, which read, “Shrew Mole”. The shrew mole looks much like a shrew, except for its mole-like hands. It lives in the forest and burrows shallow tunnels through leaf debris and forest loam. Unlike the solitary mole, shrew-moles live in loosely associate groups of up to a dozen.
The first few days of having found the shrew mole, I was careful to step around it, and even found myself saying, why, hello little shrew mole! in my head as I walked past it. You see, one of the maddening things about studying mammals is that it is rare to actually see them in real life. This shrew mole was an enormous gift to me in that it allowed me to get a much more real sense of the animal than a guidebook ever can.
After a few days, I began to pretty much ignore my shrew mole friend. Eventually I didn’t even try to avoid stepping on it, seeing as it was now flattened to the driveway. Life moves on and our sense of novelty can fade so easily.
And then, today, we studied animal skulls in class. We got to inspect and handle a large variety of skulls, examining different bones and what the morphology might tell us about how a creature lives its life. The largest skull we saw was a black bear’s. If I held it up to my face, sideways like a telephone, it was almost as big as my own head. The tiniest skull had a brain case that was so thin it was translucent. There were small spaces for the eyes, and a crooked snout with funny reddish brown-stained teeth. This was a shrew, and I learned that shrews have venomous saliva, and it is this saliva which stains the teeth. This is one of the ways a person might distinguish a shrew skull from a mole skull.
So does a shrew-mole have venomous saliva, I wondered? Fortunately, I had a way to discover the answer first-hand! It would appear, from the lovely white teeth in my shrew-mole’s jaw, that there is no venom. This makes sense, as the shrew-mole is classified within the mole family and not the shrew family.
Squatting down in the driveway, poking stick in hand, I think how you might trace the inspiration for this moment back to the day I found the shrew mole, but I believe it began much, much earlier. And anyway, it doesn’t matter when or from where our passions spring up, but just that we keep them alive, poking into the world and digging around with big goofy grins on our faces.
Moskowitz, David. Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2010. Print.
CC Image courtesy of hradcanska on Flckr