The reclaiming of the shrew – world’s tiniest mammal rediscovered on Italian island
The world’s smallest mammal has been rediscovered on an Italian island, decades after it was thought to have become extinct there.
The Etruscan shrew, which weighs less than two grams and has a body length of about 1.5 inches, was believed to have died out on the island of Tavolara, which lies off the coast of Sardinia, 50 years ago.
But the miniscule creature, which is the smallest mammal in the world by mass, has reemerged, having inadvertently benefited from a rat eradication programme.
Conservationists have been working for years to kill all the rats on the island in order to protect a colony of around 10,000 Manx shearwaters, which nest there.
The rats were preying on the eggs and chicks of the species.
A programme of dropping poisonous bait started in 2012 and was recently declared a success, with the island tentatively declared rat-free.
In the course of their work, biologists found that the Etruscan shrew was alive and well – despite having been thought to have died out on Tavolara in the 1960s as a result of being preyed on by rats.
One of the animals was photographed by Paolo Sposimo, from a conservation project called Life Puffinus Tavolara – a reference to puffinus puffinus, the Latin name for the Manx shearwater.
“It was wonderful to find this little animal, a great feeling. No one, not even the locals, had seen one since the 1960s,” he told The Telegraph. “It’s impossible to say how many there might be on the island.”
The poison bait was dropped by helicopter across the whale-backed island, which lies close to the town of Olbia in the north of Sardinia.
A year on from the last bait distribution, no rats have been detected.
“But we’ll need to wait another year until we can be certain. It’s quite a big island and there may be areas where they have survived,” said Mr Sposimo.
Although the Etruscan shrew was feared to have been driven to extinction on Tavolara, it is relatively widespread in southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, although in low densities.
It may be a pipsqueak, but it has a gargantuan appetite, eating up to twice its own body weight each day.
The eradication of rats has not just helped the Etruscan shrew, Latin name Suncus etruscus; other small creatures, such as lizards, geckos and tortoises, have also benefited.
The Italians used techniques that have been pioneered in New Zealand, where biologists have eradicated rats, mice, rabbits and cats from remote, sub-Antarctic islands.