The Chinese Northern Tree Shrew can beat you in a hot pepper-eating contest

Illustration for article titled The Chinese Northern Tree Shrew can beat you in a hot pepper-eating contest
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Science! It’s one of the best things about being alive, and when the worlds of science and food collide, it means I get use use an exclamation point with complete sincerity. Today’s nugget of emphatic exuberance comes courtesy of Popular Science—more specifically, a piece on the Chinese Northern Tree Shrew and its hot pepper-eating ways.

Most mammals avoid spicy foods—capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat, “ignites mammals’ pain pathways,” making the body think it’s actually being burned, even though it isn’t. We humans seek out these experiences, but other mammals don’t, save the noble tree shrew, a brown-gray critter under 10 inches long. Scientists have observed these little guys nibbling enthusiastically on peppers, and so a group of them set out to discover why and how they handle the heat.

Their study, published on July 15 in PLOS Biology, makes the answer plain: genetic adaptation. The specifics, per PopSci:

It partly blocks receptors in the tongue and elsewhere, by producing a different amino acid that makes it hard for capsaicin to bind to the receptor. That binding allows the receptor to signal the brain capsaicin is hot. In other words, spicy food really is less spicy to these little guys.


What’s more, they actually like the heat. Chili peppers are a relatively new arrival to China—a measly 400 years—while the itty bitty tree shrews have been in residence for millennia. The hypothesis is that another native plant, Piper boehmeriaefolium, pings the same pain receptors as capsaicin, and the shrew may have coevolved alongside that plant, making them fans of spicy food.

Cool, right? The PopSci piece includes a bunch of other juicy info on shrew biology and other mammals that can eat alcoholic nectar without getting wasted, so it’s a good read. Give it a click.


Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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Spice Spice Gravy

[Editorial Meeting]

Editor: “Where do we run the Chinese Northern Tree Shrew story?”

:::: prolonged silence ::::

Jalopnik editor: “Did they drive a Tesla to get the peppers?”

Editor: “No.”

Jezebel editor: “Have any of these shrews been sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein?”

Editor: “Probably. Okay, not really.”

Deadspin editor: “Did any shrews know Papa John? Did any of them edit for Barstool Sports?”

Editor: “They wouldn’t waste their time.”

Gizmodo editor: “Did they buy the peppers on Amazon? Did they use a heretofore unknown pepper harvesting gadget?”

Editor: “Unlikely.”

Earther editor: “Is the detached Antarctic ice shelf resembling the shape of a pepper eating Chinese shrew?”

Editor: “It looks more like Tennessee.”

Root editor: “Were they assaulted on camera by police?”

Editor: “Probably, but the video is grainy.”

Lifehacker editor: “Is there a way to make Chinese shrew peppers with a 3D printer?”

Editor: “3D no.”

Splinter editor: “Were any Chinese shrews separated from their babies at the border?”

Editor: “Only by Chinese birds of prey.”

Kotoku editor: “Does any Chinese shrew pepper fanfic exist?”

Editor: “Probably. But no one should ever read it.”

AV Club editor: “Did they star in a superhero movie?”

Editor: “SPOILER ALERT: There was no ‘Avengers: Infinity Shrew.’”

Onion editor: “Possible headline: Chinese Southern Tree Shrew Tired Of Northern Tree Shrew’s Pepper-Eating Bullshit At Pepper Eating Shrew Family Reunion.”

Editor: “No.”

Takeout editor: “Did the shrews actually eat peppers?”

Editor: “It would appear so.”

Takeout editor: “WE’LL TAKE IT!”