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Looking at a Mole

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I was blessed with a couple of days with dear friends this past weekend. Murr Brewster, author of the incredible blog Murrmurrs, and Sara (aka littleorangeguy) and Kelly from Tronto, and mahbesfren Shila too, all descended on Indigo Hill to see what they could see. I tried to keep them strapped in and behaving but it was no use. They busted out like four bad little monkeys and we laughed and laughed. 

On the last morning we took a walk that wound up being a lot longer than we'd planned. All the best walks do. Murr, who is a brisk, almost military walker, having been a letter carrier for most of her life, just takes off and six miles go by and you never even know it because the conversation is so effervescent and interesting. 

Murr found a mole. We could tell right away it was a dead mole, because there was dried mud on its fur, and no self-respecting mole lets that happen. 
Something had grabbed it, crunched it, and dropped it. This happens a lot to moles and shrews, who are mistaken for something better to eat, say a vole or a mouse, then discarded when their true identity is discovered. They must not taste very good.

What a waste of a good mole. Bad coyote. Eat what you kill.

Since it had been a long time since I'd held a mole (the star-nosed that I found in our yard being the last one), I thought I'd go over it with my iPhone camera, just because. But wait. I have to tell you this thing I found out. Star-nosed moles are the only aquatic North American mole. And the star-like processes on the nose are used to hold a bubble of air so it can forage and smell underwater. Agh! and OMG. If true. One never knows with teh Intertubes.

This photo from National Geographic.  which goes on to say that moles are the fastest foragers known amongst the Earth's mammals, able to snatch prey in a quarter of a second. Yeah, they look slow...Interestingly, they don't mention the air-bubble hypothesis. 

Its teeth are amazing. The side teeth are pretty much what I expected for an insectivore. But the two front incisors slayed me. They reminded me of 'Mater from Cars. 

Not sure what that's about, though they would seem to be admirably suited to slicing earthworms, a major prey for moles. 

Eastern moles are members of the family Talpidae in the order Soricomorpha (which I think means "shaped like a shrew" in Latin.) It's the lone member of the genus Scalopus

Moles are all about digging, fitting into narrow spaces and moving easily back and forth in tunnels. It helps to be shaped like a sausage. I'd love to see a mole skeleton. They're very front-end loaded, with a powerful pectoral girdle and great heavy bones in their forelimbs. The pelvis, not so much--narrow and fine and not fused at the pubis which, I read, allows them to turn about on themselves, fold double and somersault within the narrow tunnel they've dug. Cool. 


Probably the first things one notices about moles is their incredible silky steel-gray fur. You can brush it forward or back. It grows without direction, which is helpful if you're moving forward and backward in  narrow spaces. Each hair has a superfine whiplike tip. Not sure what that's about, except perhaps shedding dirt and water.

I was amused to learn that mole pelts are too small to be of commercial value, and furthermore they don't take dye well. So somebody has tried skinning moles and dyeing their fur. I'd like to meet that person. 
Homo sapiens is a strange and wonderful beast.

My friend Clarence has skinned salmon. He says the skin is turquoise, and remarkably fine and incredibly strong when tanned. I keep hoping he'll make me a salmon purse. Murr would probably like one, too. 

The tail. Disarmingly cute, fat. The hairs on it, said to be sensory organs to help the mole tell what's behind it. The hind feet, a bit of an afterthought when you consider what he's got up front. We'll get to those.

Sorry I don't have a better picture of mole junk. I'm pretty sure this is a female; it looked a bit catlike in the junk department. Male moles carry their testes internally and, one account asserted, have no scrotum, so looking for that wouldn't have been much help. Since moles give birth in April, I felt kind of bad about the possibility that there might have been a couple of moles-to-be in her. And briefly considered a post mortem scalopian Caesarian, but there was quiche to warm up and we were all famished, as you get when morning walks go past 1 pm and your hostess is still in the woods poking about at a mole.

The front feet. Hands. Shovels. Bulldozer blades. Fu-Manchu nails, ever growing, ever worn down by grit and soil and the making of the mole's way.

The moles arms, permanently fixed in a sideways breast-stroke position, palms out. An extra bone in the wrist, the os falciforme, to help with excavation. I was disarmed by its pale skin, the lines on its palm. Your lifeline was too short, my little friend. 

The mole moves through its dark world, a swimmer in soil, always having to make its own way through solid earth. If it's going to go anywhere it's going to have to dig its way there. I know the feeling sometimes. Imagine you do too. 

Of course I wonder what the mole sees. I dug around and found its tiny eye. A sensory organ, but much reduced, and covered with skin, the way a fetus' eye might be. Surely it can see light and dark, but not much else. Back underground with you.

From there, I wondered what it's like to be a mole, to have your senses reduced to smell and touch and hearing and vague perceptions of light (I've broken out on top! Whoops!) and dark (where I belong.) I'm sure there is great richness in all that, in following the scent of worm and beetle grub, in hearing yourself excavate and listening for the furtive rustle of a possible mate. Do moles seek each other out, call in their muffled burrows, or simply wind up bumping into each other, the way box turtles do?

So I dug for the ear and was bemused to find an open hole under a great pile of soft fur. I could see a little of the inner ear structure, too. The fur must keep dirt out of that delicate orifice. At least I hope it does. How would you dig dirt out of your ear with hands like that?

Murr, who is as unsqueamishly curious as I, carried the mole home for me as we talked our way back up the hill to home. It's in the freezer now with a dated label, bound eventually for Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Right on top of the Mandarin Orange Chicken. 

This trip around the Eastern Mole brought to you by the erratic and not entirely scientific wonderings of Science Chimp, Inc. Look at his Mater teef!

photo and smile by Murr Brewster


You are a natural born detective and educator ! Very interesting indeed and much enjoyed !! Thank you
Darlene Shamblin

Posted by Anonymous April 29, 2014 at 6:59 AM

I have a number of skulls on my mantle (must be a member of Science Chimps Anonymous). I have found moles and shrews but never quite got around to letting them decompose enough to save the skulls... I now have a couple of large bird skulls that will be put out on the ant hill this year for cleaning - no one has a bug box anywhere near me...

Thanks for all the great info, and the terrific (as usual) pictures!

Fascinating lesson in mole anatomy, and wonderful imagining of mole perception! Thank you so much!

Wonderful, informative post and pics about moles—I love them too! Here in the PNW we have the big Townsend's mole and shrew-mole. Anyway, about the mole skins—I have one! I cherish it. I bought it at a fly fishing shop. The silky-soft fur is used for fly dubbing. I never used mine for tying flies. Instead, it rests on the shelf like a little bearskin rug alongside the muskrat pelt. :)

Posted by Anonymous April 30, 2014 at 8:41 AM

When my husband was teaching 7th grade biology (at the start of his career), one of his students brought in a star-nose mole. My husband set it up in an aquarium, done up terrarium style, along with a water cup or whatever...anyway, damn thing drowned over the weekend.
Now, how could an aquatic mammal drown?

This was fascinating about the mole. The mention of mole pelts reminded me of Edwin Way Teale's account of skinning the mice from his grandfather's barn, curing them, and trying to sell them to stores! Thank you for calling up the memory . Linda B

Posted by Anonymous May 4, 2014 at 1:48 PM

Thank you for sharing! I just rescued a common mole from a big box parking lot yesterday. The poor thing was blindly trekking the asphalt, exhausted. Slipped it into a waste basket with a couple of old children's shirts for traction and hiding for the car ride home.

I offered it some water, not sure if it would take it. It's comically long snout poked out of the folds of cloth and cartoonishly tapped around before scenting the spoonful of water and quickly sucked it all up. At least, that was how it looked. Thank you for the wonderful pictures--especially of the eyes, mouth and ears. My imagination was going as I could not find a lot of information elsewhere.There is a lot of misinformation on the net. Many said they cannot bite because their teeth are too far back but when I fed it a hapless worm I found under a pile of leaves, it crammed and crunched them with no problem.Had no idea they have such funny teeth- which explains the sounds it makes while snacking away.
It ate the 2 worms then promptly tucked itself into a ball like a rat (looks like they sleep on their head!) and went to sleep.
Will release it by a grassy park near a river this evening; have seen mole hills there before. The groundskeeper will be thrilled.

Was going to release it last night near my subdivision but fretted the dry and recently developed environment would not be conducive to it finding earthworms. Went and bought some night crawlers from the sporting goods department of Walmart. So ironic.
Thank you again for the post! I will check it out some more as I like how you like animals!

Posted by Anonymous May 15, 2016 at 11:26 AM
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