Feeding ecology and diet

Shrews are primarily insectivorous and carnivorous, but will eat some plant materials such as seeds and nuts. Considering their high energy needs, it is likely that shrews need to adapt their diet according to food availability throughout the year. Their diets may include frogs, toads, and lizards. In captivity, many species will consume all but the skin, tail, and parts of the limbs of a small mammal; the brain is always eaten first. If no other food is available, some species resort to cannibalism.

The common belief that shrews cannot survive without eating every few hours is not a rule. In some Crocidurinae species, animals are able to lower their body temperatures in response to food scarcity. This is an example of food deprivation triggering torpor, a state of reduced activity level. This energy-saving state permits the animal to survive difficult conditions temporarily. For example, Savi's pygmy shrew (Suncus etruscus) loses 10-15% of its body weight by day, then increases food consumption at night to make up the loss. If food is scarce, the shrew may enter torpor.

Some species of shrews have salivary glands that secrete a poisonous substance that usually immobilizes the prey. There are records of shrew bites to humans that caused great pain. There is some question over whether the saliva of Savi's pygmy shrew is poisonous. These diminutive shrews need to bite their prey only once to subdue them.

The smallest mammal in the world is the Savi's pygmy shrew (Suncus etruscus). (Photo by Harald Schütz. Reproduced by permission.)

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