Russian desman (Desmana moschata)

GenusDesmana (1)
SizeHead-body length: 18 – 21.5 cm (2)
Tail length: 17 – 21.5 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Desmans belong to the same family as moles but are adapted for a more aquatic lifestyle. They posses a similar long, cylindrical body, but the tail is longer and flatter than that of a mole and is broadened by a fringe of stiff hairs (3). The legs are also covered in stiff hairs and the thick, waterproof coat is brownish-red in colour, fading to ashy-grey on the underside (2) (3). The snout is long and flexible and the back feet are completely webbed in order to provide propulsion in water (3).

Fossils from the Pleistocene period show that the Russian desman was found across Europe from southern Britain to the Caspian Sea (3). Today, it occurs in Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, where it occurs in the river basins of the Volga, Don, Dneiper, Ural, Uj and Tobal (2).

The Russian desman inhabits lakes, ponds, slow-moving streams and rivers. While a supply of freshwater is essential for this species, it is occasionally also found in brackish waters (2).

Very little is known about the natural ecology and behaviour of the Russian desman. They build nests on the banks of rivers and appear to be fairly gregarious, as eight individuals have been found in a single nest (2). Females produce two litters a year of three to five young, which are born in spring and autumn (2). Musk glands at the base of the tail are used to mark territories (4).

Russian desmans are primarily nocturnal and catch their prey in the water, using their flexible snout to feel along the riverbed and also as a snorkel (3). They can stay underwater for up to five minutes between breaths (4). They eat a range of aquatic organisms such as fish, molluscs, insects, crustaceans and amphibians (2).

Russian desmans were massively exploited for their fur and musk glands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and populations were decimated as a result (2). The delicate wetland ecosystem in which they are found is under threat from draining, pollution and agriculture, and desmans also face competition with introduced nutria (Myocastor coypus) and muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) (2) (4).

The Russian desman is fully protected today, and the fur trade no longer poses a threat to their survival (3). A number of reserves have been established to protect the last unspoilt wetlands and captive breeding programmes have been set up, although these have so far been unsuccessful (4). Very little is known about natural populations of Russian desmans, and this must be a conservation priority before any effective action plan may be put into practice.

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2012)
  2. Stone, R.D. (1995) Eurasian Insectivores and Tree Shrews - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  3. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. The Russian Desman: An Introduction(Bryansk Forest Film Studio tx. 2002).