When UBC entomologist Prof. Geoff Scudder accidentally captured a tiny shrew in a trap set for insects last summer, he had few clues that he had uncovered a scientific mystery.
His discovery -- which had experts scratching their heads -- has now been identified as a Merriam's Shrew. The rare mammal, never before found in Canada, has attracted national media attention and a warning from scientists that we know too little about B.C.'s animal and plant life.
"It is highly unusual to discover a mammal," says Scudder, who trapped the Sorex merriami in a pit-fall trap set up to collect insects for a survey in the Kilpoola Lake area, a few kilometres west of Osoyoos.
A curious Scudder sent the specimen to Dave Huggard, a biologist with the Ministry of Forests at Kamloops who studies small mammals in the B.C. Interior.
Huggard spotted several anomalies -- light-colored fur and in particular, unusual teeth -- and he suspected he was witnessing Merriam's Shrew.
Next stop for the specimen was positive identification in the lineup at the Royal B.C. Museum (RBCM).
"We have over 8,000 shrews in our collection; that's greater than the number of light bulbs in the legislature," says John Matters, spokesperson for the RBCM.
Dave Nagorsen, curator of vertebrates at the museum, is an authority on the identification and life histories of shrews. However, Merriam's Shrew is difficult. It can only be identified by its teeth. Despite the large collection at hand, Nagorsen had to rely on reference skulls borrowed from Washington State University.
At last, a positive identification -- Scudder's discovery was indeed a Merriam's Shrew, a small 9- to-10-centimetre-long animal associated with the dry grasslands of the western United States.
In a press release announcing the rare discovery and identification, the museum states, "We regret there are no photographs of the animal available. The specimen was in advanced decay when captured but crucial skeletal evidence confirmed its identification."
For the team that collaborated on the identification, the shrew's presence at Kilpoola Lake -- an area supposedly well-surveyed biologically -- demonstrates the importance of this and other sites for conserving B.C.'s grassland plants and animals.
"The discovery of a new mammal points out the fact that we need to learn more about what's out there if we are to have any hope of conserving it," Scudder says.