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Queen's student stumbles on rare mammal remains

By Emily Moulton

A Queen's University student, who was on a birdwatching exercise in the south of Ireland recently, did more than just observe while on his expedition — he uncovered traces of the existence of a new mammal.

Dave Tosh, who is completing a postgraduate course in Biological Sciences at Queen's, was camping out in the fields of Tipperary and Limerick studying the diet of the Irish Barn Owl when he came across an unusual object among a supply of pellet food.

A colleague from Bird Watch Ireland had sent him a batch of regurgitated food remains from Barn Owls which had been compressed into pellets to help with his study.

As he was about to put a batch in the oven he noticed a large shrew skull.

"Having looked at hundreds of pellets from Ireland already I knew that what I was looking at was very unusual as our native pygmy shrew is very small in comparison," the student explained.

"I ended up looking through more and more pellets and discovered more and more of the strange shrew skulls."

What he was looking at was in fact the remains of the greater white-toothed shrew which is normally found in parts of Africa, France and Germany.

The nearest recorded citing of it before this discovery was in the Channel Islands.

Tosh's discovery is monumental in the biological science world.

The greater white-toothed shrew has never been seen before and is only the third new mammal to be found on the island in almost 60 years.

As a result, in March seven greater white-toothed shrews were trapped at four locations in Tipperary and their existence has just been recorded in the scientific journal, Mammal Review.

Professor Ian Montgomery, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's, explained the discovery of a new mammal species in Ireland was extremely rare and believed it probably was introduced to Ireland recently.

"Most species which occur in Ireland also occur in Britain but the nearest this species of shrew has been found is on the Channel Islands and the Scilly Isles," he said.

"These records are evidence of at least one recent introduction event, probably accidental, from continental Europe to Ireland and has resulted in a rapid increase in numbers over a short period."

But, Professor Montgomery added, the discovery raised issues related to ecological impact and control which needed to be further researched saying the shrew was likely to sustain threatened birds of prey including the barn owl, but could lead to the loss of small native mammals including the pygmy shrew.

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