There were two northern treeshrews in a glass-fronted cage in the National Museum in Washington, DC. The female scampered along a tangle of branches, up, down, over, under, back, up, over, down, over, down, etc.
I was busy myself, leaning on a wall and sneering at the sign. It identified the treeshrews and gave the remarkable fact that their milk is 25% fat, whereas human milk is only 4% fat – but it didn't say why. It said nothing of the amazing “absentee maternal system” (see 4/23/08 post). Since the babies only get one fast shot of milk every other day, there has to be enough fat in it to last them. Why didn't the sign mention that?
The slightly larger male treeshrew suddenly ran to the female. She waited as he sniffed urgently under her tail, and braced herself in place as he initiated a quick, vigorous sex act. Then she raced off to do some more scampering. The male scampered more slowly to another branch, sat, and looked around.
People passed by, glanced at the two treeshrews in the cage, said “rats” or “squirrels” and passed on. Occasionally someone read the sign and said “northern treeshrews.”
The male treeshrew focused on the female, scampered to her, sniffed, and initiated another speedy mating. As soon as it was over, the female dashed away again. The male would go sit on a branch until he once again found the female irresistible. In ten minutes, they mated eight times. One passing family glanced at the treeshrews, noticed the activity, and observed with interest until, apparently, it suddenly seemed to the mother that this might be unsuitable for her son (a kid of 8 or 9). “Rafael!* Come!” she said sharply, pushing the stroller to the next cage. (*I have changed this kid's name to protect the family and out of sheer mockery.)
Another woman with a stroller came by. She spotted the scandal, and sang fondly to her child, “Babies! There's gonna be babies! Baby chipmunks!”
Finally, the male treeshrew climbed to a high branch and lay down along it in a pose of utter exhaustion. The female, still energetic, did some scampering, glanced at the male, and hurtled up to the branch where he lay. She nestled up behind, put her front paws around him, and lay there holding him. There the two remained, quite still.
If you walked by and saw them then, it would have been a dull sight.
Photo: Guérin Nicolas