Two post-graduate students have discovered a type of
shrew never before seen in Ireland - the first time
in 44 years that a new mammal species has been found
in the country.
The discovery was made by Dave Tosh from Belfast's
Queen's University and John Lusby of UCC's Zoology,
Ecology and Plant Science Department.
The two were investigating the diet of barn owls in Tipperary
and Limerick and found skulls belonging to the greater white-toothed
shrew in the birds' pellets.They noticed that the skulls were
unusually large for Ireland's native pygmy shrew. The find
led scientists to trap seven of the shrews alive at four locations
in Tipperary last month.
The greater white-toothed shrew - Crocidura russula
- has a natural range which extends across parts of Africa,
France and Germany. It has been spotted before in the Channel
Islands and the Scilly Isles.
Mr Tosh said the discovery came after a research officer
from BirdWatch Ireland sent him pellets from owls in Tipperary
and Limerick. "It was amongst a batch that I was about
to dry in an oven that I noticed a very 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" - he
"I ended up looking through more and more pellets and
discovered more and more of the strange shrew skulls."
John Lusby has been collecting the pellets as part of his
PhD studies, collaborating with Mr Tosh. Mr Lusby said they
noticed the large shrew skulls in the pellets and knew
they were different.
The animal is likely to have been introduced recently to
Ireland. About half of Ireland's estimated 60 mammal species
are thought to have been brought to the island by humans.
The last new mammal to be discovered in Ireland was the bank
vole in 1964.
Professor Ian Montgomery, head of the School of Biological
Sciences at Queen's, said - "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. 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."
He added that the discovery raised ecological issues which
need to be further studied.
While the creature is likely to help threatened birds of
prey, including the barn owl, it could lead to the loss of
small native mammals including the pygmy shrew.