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Documentary Evidence That Nature is Weird

Today in Mice has branched out over the past year to look at the odd rodent who didn't happen to be a mouse or a rat, and today we make a clean break with rodentia and concentrate on the odd.

Specifically, we refer to the solenodon, a venomous critter — we mean that literally — rediscovered in the wilds of the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola (home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic). You don't get much more endangered than to be thought possibly extinct, and both the Hispaniolan and its Cuban cousin shared that distinction until this decade.

The solenodon — no fetching nicknames here — is pretty weird, all right, looking like a cross between a possum, a rat with the mange and an awl. Usually if something's not much of a looker, you can compliment its personality, but in the solenodon's case if it should bite you, it can inject venom through special grooved teeth (hence the name solendon for all you Greek speakers). And among the females, the two teats are located near the rump, but let's not even go there.

Video of this beastie was captured over the summer in the Dominican Republic by a team with ZSL, as the conservation-minded Zoological Society of London is known. ZSL's EDGE of Existence program trucks around the world a number of generally charismatic critters (bumblebee bats, pygmy hippos, things of that ilk) whose continued being is rather precarious.

On the EDGE blog, Sam Turvey describes the 2007 hunt for the solenodon, which introduced species likes dogs and mongooses had pushed back to a little postage stamp refuge in Haiti known as Massif de la Hotte. (We'd like to point out that villagers in the vicinity thought the solenodon's were a particularly long-nosed variety of the hutia, the island's only native rodent. They think it's pretty ratty, too.)

Turvey said researchers weren't certain the solenodon could be found there, but they had a hunch based on the talk of this peculiar hutia in the 'hood.

"Our suspicions were confirmed when the remains of three dead solenodons, all of which had died just before our arrival in the mountains, were brought to us by villagers. Of these animals, one had been caught and eaten by a local farmer, and another had probably been killed by an introduced mongoose — evidence that these threats continue to deplete Haiti's fragile solenodon population."

The solenodons might have been hanging by their venomous teeth, Turvey suggested, because locals had culled the local dog population to protect their precious chickens and goats.

During the summer, researchers with EDGE and partners Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Ornithological Society of Hispaniola — finally captured a live solenodon, which they filmed and drew DNA from before letting it scamper back into the bush. The film can be seen at the ZSL Web site, and it's worth a gander. And the site Mongabay has a nice resolution mug shot of this bad boy taken by Gregory Guida.