Shrews May Predict Environmental Degradation

January 26, 1998

Shrews may be an important indicator of environmental health or sickness in certain African countries, says a professor in the Faculty of Forestry.

Professor Justina Ray, a carnivore biologist, believes the shrew -- a small, mouse-like insectivore -- may deliver environmental warning signs. "A shrew is somewhat like a canary in a coal mine. When the canary dies, watch out."

The many different species of shrew live in different habitats but they share a common denominator -- all shrews exist in very small areas that must sustain them for their entire lives. Certain species, Ray says, are particularly susceptible to environmental change making them a highly sensitive ecosystem indicator.

Ray says there are more questions than answers when it comes to these shy creatures. What is especially perplexing is the way in which 16 different species of shrew in the Central African Republic are able to survive in micro-territories. "It's unrivalled throughout the world to find that many shrews in a tiny site like that. When you consider that there are only 17 species of shrews in all of Europe, the fact that we found 16 species in a 35- square kilometre area is amazing." Ray also believes the shrews may hold some clues to the evolutionary history of Africa and an understanding of the immense biodiversity of the continent's rainforest.

CONTACT: Professor Justina Ray, Faculty of Forestry, (416) 946-3121, e-mail: or
Michah Rynor, U of T public affairs, (416) 978-2104, e-mail:

University of Toronto

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