A Derbyshire-based citizen scientist has managed to solve the mystery of the repeated sightings of what witnesses suggested might be big cats living wild in the Derbyshire countryside.
It transpires that the creatures sighted were not melanistic leopards that escaped from private wildlife sanctuaries, as suspected, but an invasive species of shrews that grow to enormous size when unchecked by predators.
The ‘Greater Black-Tailed Shrew’, or Crocidura bagheeras, is a native of Papua New Guinea and it is not yet known how a population established itself in the East Midlands, or whether they may be present in other landscapes across the British Isles.
In their native country, the shrews reach about 0.8 metres in length, including the long fluffy tail for which it is named (The Genus crocidura translates from greek as ‘woolly tail’). They live on a diet of birds and small mammals, however they are heavily predated on by crocodiles, which results in them rarely living more than 18 months. In the lush countryside of Derbyshire, the shrews may have quickly outgrown any potential predators, such as foxes or domestic cats, and the large specimens captured in recent videos could be as much as three or four years of age and up to 1.5m in length.
The discovery is thanks to Ingleby local Edna Bedport, a Mammal Society member who was intrigued by witness reports and videos of the ‘Derbyshire big cat’ and set up a hide near a quiet stretch of the River Trent in an attempt to capture evidence of these elusive creatures.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the shrew through my binoculars. I thought I must have the focus wrong and it was just a few metres away!”
Edna luckily had the presence of mind to grab her camera and captured a photo, which showed a distinctive long snout and rodent-like body shape. Edna investigated the area on foot and found some of the animal’s droppings, and sent them off to the Mammal Society, where mammal experts were able to analyse the scat and confirm it to be from the invasive shrew.
CEO of the Mammal Society, Matt Larsen-Daw, commended Edna’s initiative.
“No one knew this species had reached these shores before Edna’s investigation. Invasive species can have a devastating effect on local ecosystems – especially when they are such enormous predators as the Greater Black-Tailed Shrew. The work of citizen scientists who are uniquely placed to monitor their local habitats is essential and can ensure that the presence of invasive species can be detected early and monitored in case action is needed to protect native wildlife. In the UK we are used to thinking of shrews as tiny rodents – it is not surprising that people spotting these huge creatures have mistaken them for big cats. In this case the dead giveaway was owl bones in the droppings. Greater black-backed shrews climb trees in the daytime to predate on large nocturnal birds of prey when they can catch them unaware in their nest holes.”
Scientists have assured local residents that the Greater Black-Tailed Shrew are shy and would not seek to attack humans, but that anybody encountering one should be cautious and try not to corner it, as they can inflict a vicious bite. In the event that one appears to be aggressive, people are advised to imitate a crocodile by bearing their teeth, opening and closing their mouths and waddling towards the creature with bowed legs.
April Fool! Our story about the identification of giant black shrews in Derbyshire as the cause of big cat sightings was of course just a joke. Big cats living wild in the UK countryside could still be the explanation!
Greater black-tailed shrews are a fictional species. However evidence has been found by citizen scientists of an invasive species of shrew that could be upsetting the balance of local ecosystems in Britain. The greater white-toothed shrew is a small insectivorous mammal commonly found in Europe and North Africa. It was not believed to be present in mainland Britain until recently, when Melissa Young posted a picture of a dead specimen on social media and it was spotted by ecologist Ian Bond. This invasive species has been causing issues in Ireland, so evidence that it may have established itself in at least one location in Britain is something scientists are keen to monitor – with
help from local wildlife enthusiasts. You can read more on this developing story here, and help us to find out more about Greater white-toothed shrews as part of our Searching for Shrews project.