July 20, 2011
For “Predator Week,” I wanted to highlight some unlikely fearsome creatures: venomous mammals. These mammals are a bizarre bunch. The male platypus has spurs on its ankles that release venom, likely to fight off male competitors during mating season. And various species of shrew and the shrew-like solenodon use venomous saliva to disable prey.
The solenodon is particularly fascinating because it delivers its poison just as a snake does—using its teeth as a syringe to inject venom into its target. Not a lot is known about these unusual mammals. There are only two solenodon species: One lives on Cuba and the other on Hispaniola (home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic). At night, they dig in the dirt with their Pinocchio snouts and long claws, looking for grub and waiting to disarm their prey—insects, worms, snails and small frogs and reptiles—with a toxic bite. The BBC has some great video footage of the strange little guys (the solenodon’s venom isn’t lethal to people but notice the handlers still wear gloves).
It readily defends itself against one of its own kind, and probably attacks other animals savagely judging from the way a captive solenodon attacked a young chicken and tore it to pieces with its strong claws, before eating it.
Millions of years ago, venomous mammals may have been more common. But soon the world may lose a couple more: Like many other predators, both species of solenodon are highly endangered. Deforestation and the introduction of dogs, cats and mongooses that eat solenodons threaten to drive the critters to extinction. And in Haiti, people hunt solenodons for food.
Fortunately, the solenodon has recently become the focus of conservation efforts. It would be sad if such a unique, mysterious mammal were gone for good—although I imagine the invertebrates of the Caribbean wouldn’t mind.
Tomorrow in Predator Week: Scientists find the marine version of the Serengeti’s great migrations
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