The "hero shrew" is thought to be the most unusually strong mammal for its size because of its very unique spinal structure. The new species, called Scutisorex thori, was found in the Republic of Congo recently and named for the Norse god of strength, Thor.
The hero shrew is not a new discovery, as they were first found in 1910 in equatorial Africa, according to scientific journal Nature. However, its sister species' discovery, as well as its unique trait of a thick spine that interlocks like "the teeth of two combs," could provide researchers with new evolutionary insights.
"This significant investment of energy and calcium must have an evolutionary benefit," Rainer Hutterer, a vertebrate biologist from the Alexander Koenig Zoological Research Museum in Bonn, Germany, told Nature. He and other scientists found the shrew in the forests of the Congo and believe it to be a sister species to the known woolly hero shrew, Scutisorex somereni.
The difference between the species is remarkable: the Thor's hero shrew's interlocking spine allows it to withstand 140 pounds- that's the equivalent of a grown man standing on its back without injury. Researchers theorize that the super-strong spine, complete with eight vertebrae and fewer lateral processes than the sister woolly hero shrew, could help with getting to worms under heavy logs.
"The discovery helps us understand how this extreme specialization has evolved incrementally," said Andrew Kitchener, a vertebrate biologist at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, U.K.
Scientists think that the hero shrew's recent discovery could be because it didn't exist before- it could have come from quick evolution, although other authors have called this point into contention.
"The hero shrew was considered an example of punctuated equilibrium, where species remain relatively unchanged for long periods, but then events happen very rapidly and you get branching to another form," said William Stanley, a biogeographer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Ill. and a co-author of the study.
The hero shrew's well-designed interlocking vertebrae could be applied to structural designers or engineers seeking ways to more thoroughly distribute pressure, according to Nature.