Northern treeshrew

We had stumbled upon a leech goldmine: in an open patch of shrubby weeds we were finding more leeches than we had collected in the previous two days. At one point I had over twenty parasites wriggling in my left hand: imagine a fistful of small spaghetti strings come to life. Spaghetti strings that, if you don’t dunk them quickly enough into the tube in your other hand, will start feeding on you. It was great! In the midst of this frantic collecting my local guide pointed to something over my shoulder. I turned around but didn’t see anything. “Soc,” he said. I looked up into the trees for a squirrel. Out of the corner of my eye I caught something small and furry scurrying down a trunk. Then it stopped. At that point I got a good look and realized that this wasn’t a squirrel at all. In fact, it wasn’t even a rodent. This was something in a mammalian class of its own—or, to put it scientifically, in a mammalian order of it’s own. For a moment I stared in disbelief at an evolutionary marvel. I completely forgot about the leeches in my hand—until I felt one, slimy as a slug, squirming between my fingers. He almost escaped, but I caught him before he could get away. I stuffed the leeches into my collection tube and looked back up: but the animal was gone. I had just seen a Northern treeshrew (Tupaia belangeri).

The treeshrews are small mammals native to the forests of Southeast Asia. They’re a fascinating group for a couple reasons. At first glance one might assume—as I did, before I did my homework—that they are related to rats and mice. But although they are rodent-like in appearance their closest living relatives are actually primates. Another interesting fact: treeshrews have the highest brain to body mass ratio of any living mammal. And you thought you were smart! The Northern treeshrew is, as its name implies, highly arboreal. They are opportunistic feeders that prey mostly on insects. Their insect-eating is aided by excellent binocular vision: the perfect equipment to use to search and destroy tiny tree-dwelling beetles. The species has a wide geographic distribution. It is found in a variety of habitat types at a range of elevations—too many to list here. It is clearly an adaptable species. This large range, combined with the fact that populations seem to be stable, means that the species is doing well from a conservation standpoint. It is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. In the Annamite jungles it is considered common. Although I can’t support this with data, I believe that their small size makes them mostly immune to snares, which are set for larger mammals. Finally, a piece of interesting and hot-off-the-press news: this species was recently detected in leeches collected in Pu Mat and Bach Ma. Apparently being mostly arboreal doesn’t save the little guys from being snacked upon!

Northern treeshrew
Northern treeshrew

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