JMU Biologists Patent Device To Uncover Shrews' Clues

Sep 13, 2021

JMU Grad student Shannon Gillen examines one of the Animal Monitoring Stations at the EJC Arboretum.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

Biology faculty at James Madison University have patented a new device that allows them to study the behavior of some of our tiniest local mammals. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sounds at the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum]

SHANNON GILLEN: ...And this is where the camera is connected. So you can see -

JMU biology professor Katrina Gobetz.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

KATRINA GOBETZ: Oh, look at all that stuff!

GILLEN: Yeah, a shrew has definitely been there!

That's grad student Shannon Gillen and Professor Katrina Gobetz examining one of six Animal Monitoring Stations they have set up in the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum in Harrisonburg. The contraption is about the size of a shoebox, with a tiny basin they filled with sunflower seeds and mealworms that morning.  And they have a camera pointed at it, so that when a shrew - which may only weigh as much as a peanut - steps towards the food, it sets off a weight sensor that turns on the camera.

GOBETZ: Shrews are not really well studied in terms of what they're doing out there, under the leaves in their habitat, and how they catch their prey, what they do with their prey, and how they interact with other species. That's because we've traditionally caught them inside metal boxes. And so when you catch a shrew in a metal box, you handle it. You usually pick it up, you measure it, and you weigh it.

With her invention, researchers can monitor a shrew's weight, length, and behavior, all without having to trap it - the critter just leaves when it's done eating. This is especially beneficial, Gobetz said, because many species' numbers are declining.

GOBETZ: So it's important to try to find a way to study them that's non-invasive, so that we're not restraining them and potentially stressing them or injuring them when we're handling them.

[You can view short videos of a shrew inside the patented device here and here.]

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