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The Fascinating Russian Desman

At one time hunted for its thick luxurious fur and its musky-smelling scent glands, the Russian desman (Desmana moschata) is listed with the IUCN as 'vulnerable' and is now protected from hunting by legislation. This small semiaquatic mole-type mammal can be found burrowed into the banks of slow-moving streams and ponds in the Don, Volga and Ural River basins of Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, where it hunts for insects, fish, amphibians and crustaceans to eat. The entrance to the burrow is usually hidden within vegetation with the burrow itself leading to below the water level. They readily move and dig new burrows if water levels fluctuate.

Although there has not been intensive study conducted on this member of the mole family, it is known that they live in groups of up to five animals and appear to have a structured social system and complex methods of communication. They reproduce twice a year, giving birth to between three and five pups. They are primarily nocturnal, but are sometimes seen during the day. The average length of a Russian desman’s head and body is between 120 and 220 mm with its tail measuring up to 215 mm and its long snout is flexible. Their front feet are partly webbed, while its back feet are completely webbed, aiding it with its swimming abilities.

Resembling a rodent more than a mole, but being of the mole family, the Russian desman has a scaly tail which is flattened and wide at the base. Its scent glands are situated at the base of its tail, enveloping the creature with a musky smell. In the late 1800s, this very concentrated substance was much sought after by perfume makers and its soft supple fur was in demand with furriers. This resulted in a drastic reduction in numbers. Although, they are protected by law, their numbers continue to be reduced due to habitat destruction and water pollution. The Russian desman also faces competition for resources from species which have been introduced from foreign lands into their natural habitat, including muskrats (indigenous to North America) and nutria, also known as coypu or river rat (indigenous to South America).

Fossil records indicate that the Russian desman was once found as far away as the British Isles. Today they appear to be limited to the areas mentioned above. So if you are visiting any of these beautiful natural areas, keep an eye out for the fascinating, but vulnerable, Russian desman.

 



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