Anti-caturday post

How can you limit yourself to cats in a world full of strange creatures? Here’s a mammal I never even heard of before: it’s incredibly rare, it has a very limited range, it’s the lonely relic species (only two species, one in Spain and one in Russia, of its group left, all the rest are extinct) of a once diverse and successful tribe, and it’s really weird. It’s the Pyrenean Desman.

It’s a small aquatic mammal with a long snout fringed with sensitive whiskers, large hindlimbs with webbed feet, and small forelimbs; it lives in mountain streams in Spain and the Pyrenees, foraging for small crustaceans and snails in the muck. It’s a talpid, of the family of moles, but it’s uniquely adapted to swimming rather than digging.

It’s going extinct. Dams and development are destroying its habitat, and it seems to be particularly sensitive to pollution.

Wait, I say. Here is this exotic, obscure mammal with unique adaptations and its own special history, the product of a long, independent lineage of many tens of millions of years, and now, here in my brief lifetime, just as I learn about it, it looks like that novel genetic lineage will be shortly snuffed out, lost forever?

That seems to happen a lot around us humans. We need to learn to make room for our other partners on this planet.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    Captive breeding?
    DNA sampling of every known individual to ensure there is no inbreeding?

  2. microraptor says

    Darned right, we do. I was just having this discussion with my mom last night, in fact.

    Too many people seem to think that it doesn’t matter if some critter goes extinct or not because they weren’t “valuable” or “important” enough*.

    *Scare quotes because of the implication that a species only deserves to live if it’s directly useful to humans.

  3. pipenta says

    Oh, oh, oh, the dear little thing!

    It looks like it has a vacuum cleaner attachment for a snout!

  4. lasius says

    I remember I once saw one of the Russian ones in a children’s cartoon. Was the partner of a polar bear if I remember correctly. Man that was eons ago.

  5. slowdjinn says

    That would be Sacha, in the cartoon ‘Noah’s Island’ (Noah being the bear). Sacha was, predictably, the comic relief. Not sure in what sense you mean “partner”.

  6. lasius says

    Right, Noah’s Island. Memories man.
    Partners as in those two were particularly close, were they not?

  7. says

    Yup, knew about it. Félix Rodriguez de la Fuente (someone most here would be unlikely to know who would be known by virtually every Spaniard of a certain age) had a show on this animal once. Its life is pretty much all about non-stop eating, as one would expect.

  8. says

    Galemys pyrenaicus — it always bugs me when a biologist doesn’t use a species name to identify a species.

    Also, PZ, note this geographic range: It covers the whole of Andorra, a tiny bit of France, about 20% of Spain, and 40% of Portugal: Next time you want to say "Iberian Peninsula", say «Iberian Peninsula», not "Spain". Yeah, it is very American of you to botch Geography and be oblivious of “furriners”’s sensitivities — but that’s not what we love you for…

    About this beastie: It is well known among Portuguese biologists, conservationists and environmentalists (these three groups have a huge overlap, thankfully), but, as most mammalian wildlife in Europe, it is very secretive and hard to spot for anyone but the best prepared.

    Please note that it’s UICN status is "vulnerable", that is, the lest threatened among the endangered. However this can change swiftly as its restrict habitat (freshwater running streams) is threatened with damming and pollution.

    I had the chance to pet one, in captivity (it was not me that has been made captive, though, rather one of them caught in barbwire): They are cute and cuddly even if a tad oily on the fur and somewhat aggressive in a fickle and moody way.

  9. says

    Birgerjohansson #1 — Better yet: Stop damm building (good only to make power companies’s executives even richer), stop agro-pollution (which it made worse by GMO’s — as the the modification is often only resistence to really toxic pesticides), and stop paper pulp “forestry” (eucaplytus monoculture has been the single worst factor in mediterranean environment issues in the last century).

  10. bortedwards says

    And I’ll bet good Russian rubles that a cat would kill one/many given half a chance.
    No wonder it’s endangered. Poor defenseless anti-cat.

  11. bortedwards says

    8 September 2012 at 1:56 pm
    Holy crap, it’s a platypus-mole!”

    Two different animals cunningly spliced together. Clearly evidence against evolution, no?! ;)

  12. bassmanpete says

    Too many people seem to think that it doesn’t matter if some critter goes extinct or not because they weren’t “valuable” or “important” enough*.

    *Scare quotes because of the implication that a species only deserves to live if it’s directly useful to humans.

    I used to be a tour guide here in far north Queensland and it really used to annoy me (only inwardly of course; never show annoyance to the clients!) when someone would say about some rainforest creature “But what use is it?”

  13. Chelydra says

    Desmans are at the top of my list of animals I’d love to see in the wild! The star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) of eastern North America also hunts most of its prey underwater, but it’s still specialized for tunneling and swims by ‘digging’ throught the water. The other eastern North American mole, Scalopus aquaticus, is not aquatic.

  14. scottportman says

    octopod #13 – perfect description “Platypus mole”

    Amazing creature. I’ll just bet there were a lot of weird insectivores occupying all sorts of odd niches back in the Cretaceous. Googled the Russian version – larger, but also vulnerable with the population declining 50% in the last 50 years.

    I know cats can’t get any love around here, but they are spectacular creatures in their own right. Hope the increase in feral cats isn’t affecting Desmans in the Iberian peninsula.