Libmonster ID: BY-1533
Author(s) of the publication: Yevgeniya SIDOROVA

by Yevgeniya SIDOROVA, journalist

This small animal of the insect-eaters order is sometimes called a water mole. Like its land relative, the Russian desman (Desmana moschata), or muskrat, is short-sighted, does not like daylight and only at dusk it comes out of its underground digs, an intricate labyrinth of underground tunnels on a high bank of a forest lake or river leading directly underwater. However, the fate of this cautious animal, which is found solely in our country, is dramatic, and this species is entered in the Red List of the World Conservation Union and the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation with the note "a decreasing, rare and relict species". According to scientists, the present state of the desman population reflects the degradation of flooded lands, which this animal inhabits. The poor level of environmental protection also has a part. Can people stop such undesirable processes?


The Russian authority on insect-eating mammals, Dr. Sergey Stroganov (1904-1960), singled out the desman into an independent family of Desmanidae, pointing to the structure of its skull and dentition, specific features of auditory ossicles* and other morphological characters that distinguish it from representatives of the mole family

See: G. Solntseva, "Worlds of Sounds and Anatomy of Hearing", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2009.-Ed.

стр. 107

(Talpidae) (today most scientists agree with the listed characteristics and add new ones). But there are also features of resemblance showing genetic relatedness of these groups that have isolated themselves in a long evolution*.

The oldest fossils of muskrats are dated back to the Middle Oligocene (30 mln years ago). In the ensuing periods this small animal settled a vast territory, as testified by paleontological evidence of different age, from the Miocene (23-5 mln years ago) down to the Pleistocene (2.5 mln-11.7 thous. years ago), found in the Northern Caucasus, the south of the European part of Russia, in Hungary, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and on the British Isles. Four out of the five Miocene muskrat species died out more than 1 mln years ago, and the habitation area of the Russian desman contracted to the basins of the Dnieper, Don, Volga, Ural and Ob rivers. However, in its appearance this animal has not changed much. Therefore, we have a rare opportunity of seeing a relict of quite remote geological epochs in it.

This envoy of the past looks quite exotic. It has a massive 18-22 cm body (i.e. rather big for an insect-eater) covered with a grayish-maroon furskin and a weak-eyed head with a long motile bald beak ferreting for surrounding objects all the time. Before diving into its dear lake, where it finds tasty footstalks of macereed, bulrush, arrowhead and appetizing mollusks, maggots, leeches and whitebait, the desman submerges its head into water. Such motion sequence led researchers, in particular Lev Borodin of the Oka State Reserve**, to the idea of a special role of this beak not only as the principal organ of touch but also as "a diving rudder". When the desman enters into its sphere at last, it (called popularly "kho-khulya") "battens down the hatches" (its nostrils are closed by special valvules) and develops a high speed thanks to its paws fitted with webbings and big claws (up to 7 cm on the front paws and 10-11 cm on the rear ones) and a tail body-size long and flat sides in the form of an oar. This tail covered with a dark-brown skin serves its master reliably in a water basin in its forward and turning movements. However, on shore it trails passively behind thus decreasing the speed, low as it is (52-107 cm/s) and not adapted for movement on land.

See: V. Orlov, "The First Model of Phyletic Evolution", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2009.-Ed.

** See: O. Bazanova, "Two Capitals of Grand Principality", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2010.-Ed.

стр. 108


The desman has glands near the tail bottom, which secrete lipoid musk with a very strong and persistent smell. By this substance the animal marks the territory and greases its hair keeping it dry and in some measure protecting itself from beasts of prey.

This feature, however, never embarrassed people, on the contrary, it became one of the reasons of desman hunting, as the aromatic secreta were used for perfume preparation for some time, and "the sweet-scented" tails were put in wardrobes to protect clothes against moth. The author of the famous "Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Russian Language", honorary member of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences Vladimir Dal (1801-1872) gave the following definition: the desman's name proper was connected with the ancient Russian word "fancy man", i.e. a ladies' man, a ridiculous perfumed dandy. But Maximilien Fasmer (1886-1962) elected in 1928 to the USSR Academy of Sciences as its corresponding member, traced affinity of the word "desman" with the Czech chuchati, what meant "to breathe, to breathe out" and the Polish words chuch and  chuchac as "breathing" and "to breathe", all three words are, most likely, of imitative origin. Besides, desmans give "puffing" signals in a mating season.

Yet, it was not its aromatic secreta alone but also its nice pelt that was the main cause of desman hunting. The famous German natural scientist of the 19th century Alfred Brehm in his encyclopedia "Life of Animals" noted its close affinity with furskin of the beaver and musquash. Therefore the outstanding Swedish scientist of the 18th century Carl von Linné assigned the desman in his classification "under the name of a musky beaver of the order of rodents". Nevertheless, at the end of the 18th century the cost of the desman's pelt made up only 2-3 kopecks, which corresponded to the cost of a chicken, or one and a half dozen of eggs, or the daily earnings of an unskilled worker. The situation changed only in the middle of the 19th century, when the cost of the pelt rose to 26 kopecks in 1892, then to 99 kopecks in 1893 and to 1.25 rubles in 1894. In 1888 the procurement of desman pelts increased threefold; four years later, however, the state limited the springtime hunting of desman probably due to the decreasing population of desmans.

Russia was always a monopoly supplier of the pelts of this endemic muskrat found in our country, and this created a favorable business situation on the international fur market; and the price of one desman pelt was one mark in Europe in the late 19th century. However,

стр. 109

the fur trade became most profitable in the 1920s against the background of a sharp slump in export, when the prices varied from 1.5 to 3 rubles in Russia, reached 6-7 rubles in the Ukraine and escalated to 20-30 German marks in Leipzig! It is worthy of note that just in 1920 the Soviet government issued a special decree, which prohibited desman hunting and marketing everywhere. At that time desman pelts were sold only illicitly, through poaching.


Desman hunting was banned up until the 1940s. In the 1930s, to restore the numbers of the species a network of specialized reserves was created, in particular, the Klyazma Reserve (in the floodlands of the middle reaches of the Klyazma). After that, licensed hunting was permitted. However, the hunters did not observe the established standards, and due to the lax control on the part of hunting inspectors a spontaneous extermination of this valuable animal started, its pelts were readily purchased for ladies' fur collars, muffs and headwear. As a result, in 1957 desman hunting was prohibited again for five years because of the marked decrease in its numbers.

It became clear to specialists that without rehabilitation of the species one could not think about its commercial utilization. In his monograph "Russian Desman" (1963) Lev Borodin of the Oka Reserve analyzed data on the propagation of this animal published starting from the second half of the 19th century (earlier data were not reliable enough), and proved that its habitation area contracted considerably in the 20th century, especially, in the 1930s to 1950s. The desman population went down in the Urals and became extinct in its former habitats in the estuary of the Kama, in Volga floodlands, in the lower reaches of the Don, in the Azov river basin and in the Dnieper basin. It ceased to exist also in the vicinity of the cities of Kharkov and Oskol. Was the predatory extermination of the animal to blame only?

This conclusion seems legitimate. The Brehm encyclopedia published at the end of the 19th century reads: "All over the place where desmans are found there is plenty of them..." and " numerous the desmans should be is seen from the fact that their pelts used for the trimming of headwear and housedress cost in our money only several kopecks". However, the research of a number of scientists, including Alexander Paramonov (1891-1970) and Alexander Formozov (1899-1973), both Drs. Sc.

стр. 110

(Biol.) of Moscow State University, Ilya Barabash-Nikiforov (1894-1980), Dr. Sc. (Biol.) of Voronezh State University, Leonid Shaposhnikov (1905-1979), Dr. Sc. (Biol.) of the Ryazan Pedagogical Institute and also Lev Borodin showed that the uncontrolled hunting was not the only reason for the obvious decline in numbers of this relict animal. At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries radical changes took place in the natural environment of the desman habitat, which affected the population of this animal much more.

The point is that desman can inhabit only flooded areas of the forest and forest-steppe zones, namely, old river beds, small lakes 1.3-5 m deep with the well-developed bank and aquatic vegetation and quiet rivers. Its habitats require high humidity and a low annual amplitude of the water level, for spring waterfloods inundating desman holes, the drying-up of shallowed water reservoirs in summer and their freezing in winter are disastrous for this animal which can be drowned in its own habitat or fall a victim to beasts of prey during forced migrations. Besides, man destroyed vast watershed for-estlands to clear space for ploughland, reclaimed swamplands, and built dikes and water-storage reservoirs; all that could not but impact much the climate and hydrography of the Russian Plain.

The head of the laboratory of the federal state enterprise All-Russian Research Institute of Nature Protection (VNIIPrirody, Moscow) Gennady Khakin, Cand. Sc. (Biol.), who has been studying the problem of desman protection for many years, is convinced that this animal happened to be on the brink of extinction due to the ongoing thrust of civilization. But if in our country with its primeval forests this species experienced the anthropogenic effect to the full only in the 20th century, in Western Europe the desman "expulsion" started much earlier, i.e. in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The ban imposed on Russian desman hunting in this country in 1957 is still valid largely due to the ability of our biologists and game wardens to explain the need of protecting this species to officials. Further studies of the protected species are essential in this case. In the second half of the 20th century valuable information on the propagation and specific features of behavior of this rare animal was collected by specialists of the Bryansk Forest, Voronezh, Kerzhenets, Mordova, Oka and Khoper reserves and a number of wildlife sanctuaries (Klyazma, Murom and others). Unfortunately, these data proved a steady decline in its population, which numbered 69,000 individuals in 1970 and only 39,000 in 1985. The desman propagation area kept shrinking simultaneously.


In 1985 the executive committee of the Vladimir Regional Soviet of People's Deputies, on the initiative of the USSR Academy of Sciences and VNIIPrirody, reorganized the Seltsovo game preserve, located in the Vladimir Region in an area of 17,000 ha, to a specialized experimental desman farm. A major contribution to this decision was made by Academician Vladimir Sokolov,

стр. 111

Director of the Severtsov Institute of Developmental Morphology and Ecology (1928-1998) and Gennady Khakin, Senior Game Warden of the Vladimir Region, who had good knowledge of the valuable lands allotted for experiment because in 1967-1970 he was the first director of the preserve. From now on he and his staff faced the task of protecting the unique species by combining this work with a rational hunting for other animals. Such form of work could make it possible to win support from country folks, otherwise dissatisfied with what they thought groundless prohibitions and long-term land reservation for different animals and birds in wildlife reserves. Selective protection was meant to minimize conflicts with the local people who got access to the game of interest to them, and to facilitate observance of the following rules. First, it was not allowed to get fish with set (stationary) nets on the hunting grounds, and organizations which planned to carry out land improvement works and to use toxic chemicals to remove vegetation next to the preserve's boundaries were obliged to coordinate their actions with its administration. Second, tourists were allowed to visit only the authorized places. Besides, it was prohibited to graze cattle and cut trees and bushes within a 100 m belt around the water reservoirs. All these recommendations were worked out by VNIIPrirody.

The above measures cater to the desman's specific features. For its normal growth and reproduction one should preserve flooded ecosystems of a forest zone providing good protection and food. As all wild animals the desman shies the presence of man, but unlike many of them it cannot escape chase being a specialized aquatic species.

The form of nature protection work introduced in the Vladimir Region was not original at all. In Russia the idea of creating specialized game sanctuaries to protect particular animal species was voiced for the fist time already in 1932 by specialists of the Moscow Fur Institute, who made serious efforts for creating a network of such reserves countrywide. The principle taken as a basis of the Russian experiment was also adopted abroad. Needless to say within just several years the desman population on the grounds of the reorganized Seltsovo game preserve grew much more than elsewhere in the region on the average. Experts from Portugal and France visited this sanctuary to borrow from its useful experience. Unfortunately, this successful initiative was not continued in the form of new enterprises of this kind, though they would certainly be of great benefit to many rare species of the fauna.

Meanwhile, by estimate of the Center of Wildlife, a national public organization, which since 2000 has been engaged in monitoring the state of the Russian desman population (covering more than 40,000 km of shorelines and water reservoirs) and educational activities among the people, the numbers of this unique animal made up

стр. 112

only 28,000 individuals in 2001 and not more than 25,000 in 2006. Again, as in the first half of the 20th century, the same poor nature-oriented control and widespread poaching contribute to the extinction of this rare species.

One should also touch on fishing in desman-populated habitats. Synthetic set nets cast in small Russian rivers span their bed. In a spawning season ecologists of the Center of Wildlife remove 3 to 5 nets like that, very cheap and affordable, on a 10 km stretch in one day only. Small wonder that their owners "forget" about such nets left in water reservoirs. Recently the poacher's inventory was supplemented with electric fishing rods, electric shockers and electric nets, which destroy the desman's food base. These contraptions are an absolute evil which should be fought against at the national level.

It would be naive to try to enforce immediate restrictions on desman hunting. But to make it conform to the environmental standards, Gennady Khakin and his colleagues suggested methods used in the former Klyazma State Reserve (today a wildlife sanctuary). Several decades ago they built and tested a special trap sparing the desman but ensuring a fine catch of fish. To this end, a special device in the form of a pipe about 1.5 m long and 20 cm in diameter is set into the upper part of a trap net (hooped net tapering downwards). If the pipe comes out of the water surface to 5-7 cm, the animal will find a way out and can leave the fishing tackle. According to zoologists, a traditional seine (sweep-net) would also be good: while fishermen are dragging their seine net, cautious desmans will hide in safe burrows on hearing noise (true, such method of fishing is more laborious than when using the new-fangled gear). For musquash catching at the Seltsovo game preserve VNIIPrirody applied folding traps ("muzzles") made of 45x45 mm metal mesh from which the desman could escape easily.

In 2006, a scientific and practical conference on the current state of the Russian desman and prospects for its protection was held in the Oka Biosphere Reserve (Ryazan Region). At the same time, a special Working Group was set up to monitor the population of this unique species and assist in its protection. It included many experts concerned with the Russian desman. They are doing a good job. At the end of 2008, on their initiative, amendments were made in the State Fishery Act, banning the import of fishing line nets and electric fishing rods. However, such important projects as further expansion of protected natural areas inhabited by this relict animal and establishing game preserves have not yet been realized.

Within the space of one article it is not possible to deal with all problems related to the protection of the Russian desman, the monitoring of its population and growth, the work being done by true professionals and enthusiasts. This is a separate subject. Thanks to efforts made by ecologists there is a hope that this living relict of ancient geological epochs living solely in our country will not disappear and people's attitude towards it will become civilized at last.


Permanent link to this publication:

Similar publications: LBelarus LWorld Y G


Беларусь АнлайнContacts and other materials (articles, photo, files etc)

Author's official page at Libmonster:

Find other author's materials at: Libmonster (all the World)GoogleYandex

Permanent link for scientific papers (for citations):

Yevgeniya SIDOROVA, A MIOCENE RELICT IN THE TOILS OF CIVILIZATION // Minsk: Belarusian Electronic Library (BIBLIOTEKA.BY). Updated: 29.08.2021. URL: (date of access: 21.06.2024).

Publication author(s) - Yevgeniya SIDOROVA:

Yevgeniya SIDOROVA → other publications, search: Libmonster BelarusLibmonster WorldGoogleYandex


Reviews of professional authors
Order by: 
Per page: 
  • There are no comments yet
Related topics
Беларусь Анлайн
Минск, Belarus
461 views rating
29.08.2021 (1027 days ago)
0 subscribers
0 votes
Related Articles
19 hours ago · From Елена Федорова
20 hours ago · From Елена Федорова
21 hours ago · From Елена Федорова
23 hours ago · From Елена Федорова
Yesterday · From Елена Федорова
2 days ago · From Елена Федорова

New publications:

Popular with readers:

News from other countries:

BIBLIOTEKA.BY - Belarusian digital library, repository, and archive

Create your author's collection of articles, books, author's works, biographies, photographic documents, files. Save forever your author's legacy in digital form. Click here to register as an author.
Library Partners


Editorial Contacts
Chat for Authors: BY LIVE: We are in social networks:

About · News · For Advertisers - Belarusian digital library, repository, and archive ® All rights reserved.
2006-2024, BIBLIOTEKA.BY is a part of Libmonster, international library network (open map)
Keeping the heritage of Belarus


US-Great Britain Sweden Serbia
Russia Belarus Ukraine Kazakhstan Moldova Tajikistan Estonia Russia-2 Belarus-2

Create and store your author's collection at Libmonster: articles, books, studies. Libmonster will spread your heritage all over the world (through a network of affiliates, partner libraries, search engines, social networks). You will be able to share a link to your profile with colleagues, students, readers and other interested parties, in order to acquaint them with your copyright heritage. Once you register, you have more than 100 tools at your disposal to build your own author collection. It's free: it was, it is, and it always will be.

Download app for Android