Close encounter with a bizarre venomous beast

Wednesday, June 02 2010 @ 01:44 PM EDT

Contributed by: jkr

By Rebecca Morelle Science reporter, BBC News, Sierra de Bahoruco, Dominican Republic

Dr Richard Young gets up close with one of the world's weirdest mammals

Conservationists are in the Dominican Republic to save one of the world's strangest and most ancient mammals - the Hispaniolan solenodon.

After days of searching, the team finally tracks down one of the bizarre beasts.

A shout from the forest sounds, bursting through the night chorus of frog tinks and cricket chirrups.

"They've got one, they've got one," someone yells.

It is the middle of the night, and local research assistants Nicolas Corona and Lleyo Espinal have been trawling the dense forest vegetation, attempting to track down the elusive Hispaniolan solenodon.

They need complete silence to find the animals: they pinpoint them by listening for the sounds of rustling leaves as the little creatures scuttle across the forest floor.



With anticipation building, we head towards them, our head torches illuminating the path ahead, all the while attracting a blur of insects drawn by the light.

The solenodon has been placed in a bag, which is the best way to keep it calm while it is temporarily captured.

As the bag is opened, a pungent, musty smell - the solenodon's signature scent - seeps out.

It is carefully pulled out by its tail. And while this looks uncomfortable, the researchers say this is the least stressful way to hold the animal.

Thick gloves are donned, essential for protection against the solenodon's most ancient feature - it is the only mammal in the world that can inject venom through its teeth.

While the poison is not deadly to humans, it is far from ideal to get bitten - and this seems even more pertinent as the creature first tries to sink its sharp teeth into Dr Sam Turvey, and then, when it is my chance to hold it in my glove-covered hand, me.


At last, face to face with the animal, and it is easy to see why it has been dubbed one of the world's oddest creatures - it looks like a cross between an ant-eater, a shrew and a rat.

It has a ginger-brown coat and is about the size of a rabbit. It has a long, slender nose, which it is snuffling about with in the palm of my hand; its super-sensitive whiskers are twitching around.

And every now and then, it has a little scratch with its huge clawed feet, all the while peering at the cooing crowd with its tiny, beady eyes.


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