The Desman of the Pyrenees

desmandessin

Galemys pyrenaicus

This small mammal is the largest aquatic insectivore in France. It measures between 24 and 29 cm in length (of which a bit more than half is tail) and weighs between 50 and 80 g. It's also called the "trumpet rat" because of its long, flat, fexible snout, about 20 mm long, endowed with sensors. It inhabits streams, rivers and lakes in the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian mountains in Spain, at altitudes between 400 and 2,500 m.

Pyrenees desmanThere are few creatures more discreet than the Desman of the Pyrenees (so shy that it was only discovered in 1811). Very few people have had the chance to observe it. It could be living a few metres from your house, or hiding right at your feet as you cool them in a stream and you wouldn't see it.

One's first impression is that the desman is more aquatic than terrestrial. As soon as it awakes, or comes out of its shelter, it dives into the water and doesn't come back onto dry land except to eat the biggest bits of food, groom its fur or go back to sleep. It hunts for food at the bottom of streams: small crustaceans and aquatic insect larva. The second impression, related to the first, is the difference in silhouette in the two environments. In the water, its front feet fold against its breast so it resembles a rocket, slender and agile. On dry land, the desman looks like a ball of fur, with only its surprising trunk sticking out, as well as its tail which unfortunately gives it a rat-like appearance, and it has an odd rolling gait because it walks on the tips of its 20 powerful claws.

The desman is a voracious little eater, consuming nearly the equivalent of its own weight (in captivity and in winter).


Our insectivore's activity is feverish, even frenetic. If he isn't sleeping, he ceaselessly roams his domain, energetically swimming, climbing, running, eating and grooming. No wonder he has such a huge appetite, or that he will literally drop asleep for a little nap right in the middle of his activities.

desman of the pyreneesReal sleep interrupts the desman's activities in fairly regular periods of about 3 hours, day or night, even though the animal is primarily nocturnal.

When you observe a desman in captivity, you easily discern the importance of its trunk, which is constantly exploring the surroundings. He uses it for everything : to dig, burrow, drink, touch, capture... but especially to manipulate. Only an elephant is capable of such dexterity -- but on a much bigger scale!

For more detailed information on the desman (in French) see : http://natura2000.environnement.gouv.fr/especes/1301.html

Text excerpted from "Le Desman des Pyrénées" Nathan 1986 by Mr Bernard Richard (Researcher for the CNRS at the Laboratoire du Milieu Souterrain de Moulis en Ariège). Translation : K. Chevalier

Photos of the desman of the Pyrenees by Pierre Cadiran

Many thanks to these photographers

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