Take the long way home: the lessons of the water shrew

By Christopher Cudworth

I know you’ve been dragged some weird places if you read this We Run and Ride blog on a regular basis. So be prepared, you are about to be dragged somewhere you never thought you’d go. Into the realm of the water shrew.

This water shrew shows how it's done. Ready, set, go! Oh wait, he's going swimming.

This water shrew shows how it’s done. Ready, set, go! Oh wait, he’s going swimming.

If you took a biology class in high school or college, you might have heard about water shrews. There are quite a few types of these tiny mouselike creatures with pointed snouts and sharp teeth. Shrews are feisty little carnivores with heartbeats so high that if they get caught out in the open and hear or feel a loud vibration they’re likely to have a heart attack on the spot and die. I’m the kind of weird guy who picks up shrews and looks at them closely when I find one dead on the path. I have also seen a pack of seven shrews madly running around a grass tussock screaming bloody shrew murder. But that’s a tale for another day.

How shrews survive, and why it means something to people (ultimately)

Water shrews and many other types of smaller creatures have adapted interesting behaviors that help them survive against the threat of predators.

For example, there’s this phenomenon called “edge seeking” that you often see in mice, hamsters and other small rodents. If you put a mouse down in the hall, it is not likely to walk straight down the open corridor as did the little mouse in the movie The Green Mile. Instead most small creatures head for the nearest wall or “edge” so that they only have one side of their little being to protect. This basic behavior has tons of survival value in the wild. Edge seeking cuts your risk of attack from the edge-seeking side at least in half. Smart little edge seekers live to see another day. And, if they’re lucky, they’ll find a mate and pass on the successful genes of edge-seeking to their next generation of little edge-seekers. And so it goes. The instinct breeds survival, but the behavior is what reflects the instinct.

Those are just some of the mechanisms and relationships that drive the forces of evolution.

So, back to our water shrews. See, most species of shrews don’t see too well. They do everything, including hunting, by smell and perhaps by vibration. But we haven’t been able to completely figure out that second part because a shrew’s voice is so high, a barely perceptible squeak, that you can hardly understand them when they talk. It takes a good pair of shrew ears to understand them.

Edge-seeking behavior, and survival

But given their poor eyesight, shrews depend on an advanced form of edge-seeking to help them navigate their world. Many water shrews live in damp places at the edge of ponds or marshes. They make little trails in the mud and vegetation that are pretty much invisible to the human eye, obscured as they are by overhanging vegetation. But to the water shrew, these little tunnels are home with a capital H. When going to and fro in their habitat, they do not deviate from their carefully made paths even if that path takes the long way to get from point A to point B. In fact, sometimes shrew paths go everywhere except the straight line from point A to point B, even crossing their own path on the way Home.

We often see edge-seeking behavior even among human beings, especially in middle school, when shy kids with arms full of books creep along the locker doors trying to avoid attacks from bullies in the center of the corridor. Some rules of biology never change. That is, until those bullied kids grow up to be executives and the bullies hang around the edges of bars bragging about how they used to rule the hallways. Those were the days. And shrewish girls join them to bitch about whole stole their boyfriends back then. But those aren’t water shrews, the smart kind. Those are alcohol shrews, the kind you’d never, ever want as a pet.

Really, it’s scientifically proven

A scientist once studied this phenomenon and found that water shrews are so dependent on their mapped out paths that they will take the known path under almost all circumstances even when faced with immediate danger. When you can’t see well, it is better to follow the known scent rather than a blind path to possible oblivion. Water shrews likely die at times because they don’t take shortcuts. But many more likely live because their trails are so damn confusing and they move so fast that predators can’t really catch them. So the adaptation here is that shrews actually know much better than most of us what gets them from point A to point B (and Home) the fastest.

What we can learn from water shrews

What can those of us who run and ride learn from water shrews? Well, let’s say you’re way the fuck out in the country, riding along happily when a sudden storm kicks up. You’re exactly 2 miles from the next road toward home and the storm is bearing down on you from behind. As you reach the halfway point toward the next road, a few raindrops hit your back, and a feeling of panic starts to grip you. A flash of lightning strikes somewhere in the background and you make a quick decision to try the next road that comes along.

Tarsnakes are always waiting to take a weakened rider down.

Tarsnakes are always waiting to take a weakened rider down.

The road is thin and somewhat crackly. Tarsnakes crisscross its surface. At times the surface seems to give way. But you ride hard and the bumps seem to disappear underneath. Nearing the next stretch of woods the road turns slights and suddenly you are faced with an actual, living, breathing dirt road rather than a path of country asphalt. You face a decision. The dirt road seems to aim toward the original road you planned to take to escape the storm, but you can’t be sure. The gravel under your road tires is rough, and pings sound when bigger rocks fly beneath the 120psi you used to fill them a couple hours before.

Now the rain starts to pelt the dirt road, making rain craters in the surface. You can hear them hit, and they bounce off your helmet. Wait, was that a piece of hail too? Sure enough, the hail begins in earnest, whacking telephone wires and poles as it falls. You pedal on, hoping the dirt road will meet up with the main road home soon.

The road turns again, parallel to the road you want to reach. It’s just over a field of corn newly planted. Now the dirt road has grown shiny and slick. Lightning and wind are all around you. The storm is in full form. The rain piles up on your spine and runs down your ass crack. Face it: too late to pull out the rain jacket now. You mash the pedals trying to make headway through the growing much. Finally the road turns again toward the road you need, the road you should have chosen if not in such a panic.

The unexpected

But wait. There is a barrier across the road 50 meters before the better road. The bridge over a drainage ditch is out. The ditch is deep and filled with water. Both sides are clogged with thick weeds and unstable banks. To try to cross would be dangerous, and rather stupid.

Gravel roads can often lead to trouble, and nowhere.

Gravel roads can often lead to trouble, and nowhere.

You’ve ridden two miles onto a gravel road and there’s no way out but back the way you came. The rain keeps coming down but it shows signs of ending. As if to mock you, a low roll of thunder falls away to the east. You panicked for nothing. It was just a short shower, not a major blast.

The ride back through gravel is humbling, to say the least. You laugh looking at the cyclometer. Your average speed has dropped from just below 19 mph to just above 15, and it’s dropping fast. Birds come back to the wires, and just before you reach the road, a male red-winged blackbird dives from above and strikes your helmet with its feet. A shiver of adrenaline rushes through you, making you feel like the hunted.

We’re all water shrews

In a way, that’s exactly what you were, and always will be. We’re all just water shrews in the game of life. You could tell the same story about a runner caught on a country road and the results would be the same. Making rash choices is an evolutionary mistake. It puts you in worse danger than if you’d taken the known route and weathered the short shower with a bit more smarts and dignity.

So next time you think you’ll regret taking the long way home, consider the options. If it’s hot outside and you’re about to bonk, better to ride or run on the main route and risk a mile or two extra if you don’t know the alternate route.

Because, like a water shrew that dumps its path in favor of a panicked try at reaching home another way, you can get caught out in the open, blind to the right options, and that’s no way to survive.

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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