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Finding of the shrew: DSU research team makes rare discovery of mammal twice

This Merriam's shrew was found in 2011 by a team of Dickinson State University students led by Michael Shaughnessy. In the second year of the project, a second sorex merriami was found in a different part of western North Dakota. The first is part of DSU's Natural History Collection, the second was requested by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. These were the second and third Merriam's shrews found in North Dakota. The first was found outside of Medora in 1913.

For the second time in as many summers, a Dickinson State University research team has discovered a rare shrew not found in North Dakota for nearly 100 years.

Found this summer, and recently confirmed by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, was the sorex merriami, or Merriam's shrew. The Smithsonian also confirmed the shrew found in 2011, according to a press release.

"It's just that it's not a very common species," said Neal Woodman, research zoologist and curator of mammals with the U.S. Geological Survey stationed at the Smithsonian. "It's not very often found and it's just relatively rare, at least in terms of human knowledge of it. It's a small animal and it's not something that people encounter a lot."

DSU Associate Professor of Biology Michael Shaughnessy led the student project to track small non-game mammals in western North Dakota and map prairie dog towns.

"We did two weeks of sampling on prairie dog towns each summer and we caught a number of small mammals," he said. "We caught two other species of shrew, we caught several species of rodent, a couple of things that haven't been detected here in a while, but aren't quite as rare in North Dakota as Merriam's shrew."

The prairie dog town mapping is conducted as an undergraduate research project, Shaughnessy said.

"This really isn't a result of my work in so much as it is students taking advantage of opportunities to conduct field research," he said.

The project was funded by a North Dakota Game and Fish Department grant.

"It is money given to game and fish agencies throughout the country to do work on non-game species," Game and Fish Conservation Biologists Patrick Isakson said, "so species we don't hunt and fish for."

The grant program began in 2001 and increased funding for non-game studies from $15,000 to $20,000 per year to about $500,000 each year.

The shrew was a bit of a surprise the first time it was found, and even more so the second.

"It's always a bonus" to find rare species, Isakson said.

The first Merriam's shrew found by DSU is part of the school's collection, said Shaughnessy, who is also curator of the DSU Natural History Collection. The second was requested by the Smithsonian.

"There was one specimen that we had here," Woodman said. "It was in bad shape and it was identifiable, but there were some questions about it."

The shrew is not endangered and has a wide range throughout the western United States, Shaughnessy said. But finding it in North Dakota is rare. The second was found southwest of Watford City, the furthest northeast a Merriam's shrew has been found.

"In North Dakota, it was known only from a single specimen collected in 1913 and it was a specimen that was found outside of Medora," he said. "I think, in part, it's (because) people haven't been working out here very much on shrews."

Shrews are very small mammals, which can make them hard to see, Shaughnessy said. They are as small as 1.5 to 5 grams.

"They'll sit on the end of your finger, they're so small," he said.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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