(CNN)Hero shrews may be small mammals that look like rodents, but they're strong, mighty and live up to their name on the inside. Their interlocking spine is unlike anything researchers have ever seen in another mammal.
Hero shrews have strong, interlocking spines unlike any other animal, study says
Exactly why these shrews have such sturdy tricked-out spines is a puzzle researchers are eager to solve.
"Hero shrews have crazy-looking spines -- their vertebrae are squished flat like a pancake, and they have a bunch of extra places where they touch the vertebrae next to them. It makes a really long stiff column along their back, and there aren't good field reports as to what this structure might be useful for," said Stephanie Smith, lead study author and a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago. "So we wanted to look at those vertebrae and figure out how they might be using them."
Native to the Congo Basin of Central Africa, these little gray mammals stay out of sight by snuffling through leaves and fallen material on the ground.
They were first discovered and classified by researchers in 1910, although they were known to the Mangbetu people of the Congo Basin long before then.
The early research about hero shrews included a potentially apocryphal story where the Mangbetu people showed the American and European scientists that a grown man could stand on a hero shrew without harming it. The shrew would pop up and scurry away afterward.
"We don't know how accurate these stories are, and we'll likely never know," Smith told CNN.
But Smith, who has always been interested in studying small mammals, wanted to investigate their strange spines. And shrews are particularly misunderstood, often mistaken for mice even though they're more like hedgehogs and moles.
"Shrews are really interesting ecologically, and they're so small they have almost secret powers," she said. "They're incredibly diverse, and I think they're beautiful. They're dope as hell."