Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Scientists do not step on Hero Shrews

While in general I suppose it's a possibility that a scientist (or anyone for that matter) might step on a hero shrew by accident (or heaven forbid out of malice), the scientists who first discovered the hero shrew's great strength did not have to step on any hero shrews to do so. Nope, it was the savage natives! [yes, cue ironic tone that condemns the attitudes prevalent during colonialism]. Seriously though, all they had to do was talk to the Mangbetu people of the Congo, who were quite knowledgeable about local natural history (and I imagine learned of the Hero Shrew's strength by observation or accident). Taking a cue from a reader, I did some investigating and wanted to clarify this whole matter, lest anyone think that scientists are ruthless hero shrew crushers who systematically stood heavier and heavier men on top of one to test its limits until it squashed.

Evidently, the Mangbetu knew of the hero shrew's strength and brought it to the attention of naturalists Herbert Lang and James Chapin during the American Museum of Natural History Congo Expedition, 1909-1915. Here is Lang's account from his field notes (which can be found in Allen 1917):

"The natives of these regions, especially the Mangbetu, who are well acquainted with the shrew, first called our attention to its abnormally strengthened back-bone by their performances upon captive specimens ... Whenever they have a chance they take great delight in showing to the easily fascinated crowd its extraordinary resistance to weight and pressure. After the usual hubbub of various invocations, a full-grown man weighing some 160 pounds steps barefooted upon the shrew. Steadily trying to balance himself upon one leg, he continues to vociferate several minutes. The poor creature seems certainly to be doomed. But as soon as his tormentor jumps off, the shrew after a few shivering movements tries to escape, none the worse for this made experience and apparently in no need of the wild applause and exhortations of the throng."

So impressed were the Mangbetu with the hero shrew that, in addition to frequently showing it off to visitors, they wore parts of the shrews as talismans, believing them to bestow invincibility. Here are Lang's field notes on the subject:

"These people feel convinced that its charred body or even its heart, when prepared by their medicine-men, transmit truly invincible qualities, if worn as a talisman or taken like a medicine. Perhaps this mystic reputation has often contributed to make of a brave man a real hero, wherefore the Mangbetu gave it a name meaning 'hero shrew.' Those engaging in warfare or setting out upon equally dangerous enterprise such as hunting elephants are anxious to carry along even a fraction of the ashes of this shrew. Though only worn somewhere about their body, they believe that neither spears nor arrows, nor any kind of attack can seriously injure them, much less bear them down. One can easily imagine that by the removal of the inhibitory influence of fear their courage, cunning and cleverness are set free for the best possible acheivements."

Thus both the common name of Scutisorex somereni and our knowledge of its colossal strength come from the Mangbetu people. It turns out that the hero shrew had been described by scientists as a species in 1910--previous to Lang's and Chapin's encounter with the Mangbetu people--but the unique backbone structure had been completely overlooked because it was custom then to only take the skull and skin for scientific study! I wonder how long it would have taken us to learn of the hero shrew's extraordinary backbone had Lang and Chapin not run into the Mangbetu people ...

Here is one more shot of the hero shrew's spine, viewed from above, versus a "normal" shrew of the genus Crocidura. Taken from Allen 1917:


Allen, J.A. 1917. The skeletal characters of Scutisorex (Thomas 1910). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 37, pp. 769 - 784.

1 comment:

  1. At least an instance of african contribution to science