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What Could The Tiny Shrew Teach Us About Science’s Biggest Questions?

CSU Stainslau
Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A Buena Vista Lake shrew (Sorex ornatus relictus) being held in someone's hand.

Shrews have an unusual way of surviving the winter: they temporarily shrink. Now scientists, including one from Stony Brook University, have turned their attention to that strategy. They think it could be useful for humans, too.

“It’s an amazing way of coping with the restrictions on energy availability, the restrictions of food availability over winter,” said Liliana Davalos with Stony Brook University.

As the cold sets in, other animals go into hibernation like bears, or dig into their food stashes like squirrels. But shrews?

“They just start shrinking.”

Their brains, bones and hearts shrink – sometimes by a quarter of their body mass.

“But what’s amazing is this shrinkage gets reversed. So come the next spring, they start growing again.”

Shrews actually regenerate brain tissue. Davalos wonders if that could give clues to treat diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer's in humans.

“We don’t have a super-great model that enables us to have this predictive ability of where it’s going to turn up. With a shrew we have this kind of natural model.”

A way to understand how brains shrink and grow.

“It’s not an exact equivalent because a shrew is a shrew, right?”

Or could it be just enough to translate to humans? Davalos and her colleagues don’t have the answer yet. They’re just now setting off on a three-year shrew study to try to get it.

“You know, there’s a long and winding road between these observations with an organism and then translating it into humans.”

But she thinks it will at least shed some light into how degeneration and regeneration occur in nature.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.