Shrew with a taste for the amber nectar

Binge-drinking Brits in Faliraki could learn from the pen-tailed tree shrew of Malaysia, which scientists have discovered can absorb large quantities of alcohol without showing any obvious signs of intoxication.

The tiny tree shrew spends all night drinking the fermented amber nectar of a local flower, the bertram palm, and it should in theory be laid out flat for at least one evening in every three. Yet its body has learnt to tolerate high levels of alcohol. Scientists believe that the nocturnal habits of the alcohol-loving primate may date as far back as 55 million years ago, when one of its ancestors gave rise to all modern-day mammals, including humans.

Until the researchers started investigating the fermented-nectar diet of the pen-tailed tree shrew it was thought that only humans were capable of drinking substantial quantities of alcohol.

However, it has now emerged that not only can a tree shrew drink large and regular amounts of 3.8 per cent proof alcohol, the same concentration as beer, it can do so with apparent impunity, said Frank Wiens of Bayreuth University in Germany.

"Over a period of 12 hours they will drink the equivalent to nine small glasses of wine, or four and half pints of beer. That would make you or me legally intoxicated. Indeed, on average, if humans were to drink this amount they would be inebriated every third night," Dr Wiens said.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that humans could learn to cope better with alcohol by studying how the shrew breaks down the toxin in its liver.