The Klingon Shrew

The Romulans and the Klingons are the quintessential Stark Trek Villains. Klingons in particular are usually portrayed as fearsome and strong warriors, essentially without equal. They remind me of the famous Dorsai, a human caste of warriors directly from the mind of the SF author Gordon R. Dickson.

To be completely honest with you though, in all the Star Trek series and movies, the very first time when I really felt that I saw Klingons as the true awesome warriors that they were meant to be was in the latest ST movie, Into Darkness, even when they had their collective butt kicked by Khan (Sorry, Worf!).

Anyway, Klingons are supposed to be **really** strong which usually implies a formidable bone structure. I am not sure if this has been explored in Star Trek lore, but anyway, once again, Mother Nature has surprised us in the “stranger than fiction” department.

Shrews are mouse-like small mammals related to moles. As unassuming as they are, some shrew species include several interesting representatives. For example, at least one shrew species (Blarina brevicauda) seems to be one of only two terrestrial mammals that can echolocate in a way reminiscent of bats. This very same shrew species is also one of the few true venomous mammals, with teeth groves through which venomous saliva flows. A specific component of this saliva is a small protein that displays paralytic properties like some snakes and certain cone snails.

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

In a recent paper in the Journal Biology Letters, titled “A new hero emerges: another exceptional mammalian spine and its potential adaptive significance“, William T. Stanley of the Field Museum in Chicago and collaborators described the unusual spinal column of a type of shrew (Scutisorex thori, “Thor’s Hero Shrew”), after the appropriately named “Hero Shrew” (Scutisorex somereni). These two species display a rather unusual spinal structure, where the vertebrae are interlocked in such a way that it renders the animal’s spine 4 to 5 times as strong (relative to size) as any other mammal’s spine. There are even anecdotal accounts of grown men standing on these small animals for a few minutes, after which they walk away (the shrew, not the men) with no apparent injuries.

When I saw the newspiece that reported on the Stanley et al., paper and the pictures of the spinal columns of S. thori and S. somereni compared to the spine of another shrew species, Crocidura olivieri (see below), I was amazed. If I had not known what the paper was about, I would not have said that those were spinal columns. Not even the scientists that described this anatomical feature know exactly what is its purpose of how it evolved, but that does not make it any less awesome!

At any rate, as a scientist who is also a Trekker, my first thought when I saw the pictures was “…that’s how a Klingon’s spinal column would look like.” I commented this to my friend Peter Cawdron, a Science Fiction writer and fellow blogger, and he remarked about the trademark Klingon’s forehead.

Now that remark got me really curious, so I went and looked at the paper. Lo and behold, there was a picture of S. thori’s cranium and for the life of me it kind of looks like it has cranial ridges! I know that this kind of skull feature is not uncommon among mammals and other types of animals, but nonetheless, in my mind from now on, this is the Klingon Shrew.

Fascinating… (:-)…

KlingonShrew

Picture credit: Modified from Stanley et al. (2013), see below.

If you want to know more

A new hero emerges: another exceptional mammalian spine and its potential adaptive significance. Stanley WT, Robbins LW, Malekani JM, Mbalitini SG, Migurimu DA, Mukinzi JC, Hulselmans J, Prévot V, Verheyen E, Hutterer R, Doty JB, Monroe BP, Nakazawa YJ, Braden Z, Carroll D, Kerbis Peterhans JC, Bates JM, Esselstyn JA. Biol Lett. 2013 Jul 24;9(5):20130486. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0486. Print 2013.

http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/9/5/20130486.long
http://www.pnas.org/content/101/20/7542.long
http://pubs.acs.org/cen/critter/8242shrews.html
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/35864127_Echolocation_by_the_short-tailed_shrew_Blarina_brevicauda_
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrew

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12 Comments

  1. I’m not a lot into science fiction (except the Divinyls song ‘Science Fiction’ – know them? 🙂 ) but you made this very interesting. I enjoyed it!

  2. There was an episode in the fifth or sixth season of The Next Generation in which Worf had paralyzed and, as a result, suicidal. I remember Dr. Crusher being amazed at the redundancy of the organ systems and the architecture of the skeletal system. I will try to find episode name and season if anyone is actually as hopelessly nerdy as me. ps, with respect to Klingon skull ridges, it is a sensitive topic that Klingons are not fond of discussing.

    Ka’ Plah!

    1. Or, for those that don’t speak Klingon, “The brother has warned them. Earth is weak. Bald Scientist caught us. He knows about the shrew.” 🙂

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