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by Stan Tekiela
March 13, 2017
Over the past 30 years I've had many chances to study and photograph all sorts of critters. From tiny shrews to massive moose. But there are a few critters that I still haven't had a chance to photograph and get to know. While out for a walk recently on a wintery day with a friend we happened upon one of those critters that I've haven't been lucky enough to study up close or photo, a Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata).
The Star-nosed Mole has to be one of the more strange looking creatures. If you've ever see one of these hamster-sized moles you won't forget it. They are easily identified by its large pink, fleshy nose ringed by a "star" of 22 short appendages, each called a ray, emanating from around its snout. It looks like they have an octopus on the face. The nose appendage are a large touch / sensory organ with more than 25,000 to 30,000 sensory receptors known as Eimer's organs scattered throughout. By comparison the average human hand has about 17,000 touch receptors. It is thought the rays can touch as many as 12 objects per second, figure out what each object is by send messages back forth to the brain.
They usually live in low wet habitats along the east coast of the US stretching westward and reaching around the Great Lakes region. It spends 99 percent of its life underground so it's rarely seen. Unlike other moles which prefer dry soils, the Star-nose prefers moist soils and shallow ponds. Surprisingly they spend a lot of time swimming and diving underwater in search of food, even under the ice in winter.
They have a fairly long sparsely haired tail, about 2 inches long. During winter they store extra fat in the tail making the tail look plump. The body is covered in short dense waterproof fur. This helps them to keep warm when diving in icy cold water or tunneling through the snow.
They have tiny little eyes. Sometimes if the fur is in the right place you can't even see their eyes. Since they live underground it is generally accepted that they don't see like you and me. Their vision is more geared towards seeing light and dark only. In fact researchers believe the sensory information from the rays on the nose act much as an eye would act. The stimuli send information back to the brain to give a "visual" map of what they have encountered. In fact at least half of the moles brain is devoted to processing sensory information sent from the appendages of the nose alone.
What I found visually amazing about this creature are its front feet. Huge paddle shaped feet that angle outward like tiny shovels. Each front paw has five toes and five very long nails. The nails are used for digging through root chocked dirt and also for swimming underwater. But look closer and you can see many small angled digging spades along each toe and sometimes on the palms. I've seen this kind of spades on the foot of the Spade-foot toads. The spades do a remarkable job at helping to dig in dirt.
They have specialized stiff hairs, a lot like whiskers, along the outer edge of each paw to help them feel where they are digging since they can't see in the darkness underground. The paws are connected to tiny but remarkably powerful arms which gives them amazing leverage and strength when digging. The Star-nosed mole is NOT the moles who are digging tunnels and leaving piles of dirt in your yard. Those are the Eastern Mole, and are completely different. Rarely do you see any evidence of the Star-nose Mole, especially since their habitat is usually too wet for most yards.
I got to know this amazing creature and its many adaptations. I am always reminded about how diverse nature is and how such a tiny animal can be so specialized and wonderful. I feel truly lucky to have finally had a chance to studied this amazing creature. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author /naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 4 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois,and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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