It is a Little Weird

text and photo : Norma A. Hubbard  (June 2022)

One day while I was gardening, Layla sniffed out a little creature in the long-wet grass. At first I thought, oh no, she has found a mouse and I quickly pulled her away. Although I have to say, she was not too keen on grabbing it. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was not a mouse. It was moving, and while it looked like a mole, I could not figure it out. There was a tail, but was that its head? It was the weirdest little thing, but what was it? Well, it was a mole, but a very special one, a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata).

This little creature was rather camera shy, and true to its nature it kept pushing its odd nose under grass and leaves, so getting a clear picture of it was difficult. The name obviously comes from its nose that has 22 fleshy tentacles called rays that are highly sensitive to touch. There are 100,000 nerve endings on these tiny rays, which is amazing considering the human hand has only about 17,000. It is basically blind as it spends most of its time digging underground, so the rays enable the mole to feel for prey. This little hunter is in the Guinness book of Records (2005) as the fastest eater; it can eat its prey in 120 milliseconds! Recent studies have discovered it can even smell underwater, making it only one of two species known to do this.

Star-nosed moles are carnivores. Since moles live underground, most of its food are earthworms that enter the mole’s burrow. What makes star-nosed moles different from the moles most of us are familiar with, is that star-nose moles also swim and hunt in the water. In fact, star-nose moles prefer to hunt in the water if it is available. It eats leeches and various larvae found in ponds, such as dragonflies or horseflies, and on occasion, it eats small fish. In turn, owls, hawks, and other birds of prey, as well as skunks, fox, weasels, and fisher all hunt moles. Domestic dogs and cats also are a threat to moles. I am sure my dog, Layla, would have killed it had I not kept her away from it.

There are 39 species of moles, however star-nosed mole is the only one that inhabits wet, swampy land. It lives in burrows, a series of tunnels that it digs with the aid of strong front claws. Its home range is less than 4000 square meters. Moles may live in small colonies, yet only while mating does more than one mole share a burrow. On average, about 25 moles may inhabit 10,000 square meters (2.5 acres), however if the conditions are good there may be up to 75 moles in that same area. Unlike most moles, star-nose moles don’t hibernate. They will dig under snow and hunt in icy waters.

Not a great deal is known about the mating or how star-nosed moles communicate. Typically, males and females pick only one mate in the fall and stay together until the end of the breeding season in late spring. Females will only have one litter per year. Gestation is 45 days, and the young are born towards the end of April to mid-June. Litters consist of two to seven offspring. The babies are born hairless with eyes and ears closed and the rays are folded back. After about two weeks, the ears, eyes, and star nose are functional, and by 30 days they are independent. Full maturity is 10 months. The life expectancy in the wild is about three to four years which is a fairly long life for this type of mammal.

As it turns out, I was lucky to see this weird little creature thanks to Layla. While we may not appreciate the mole mounds on our lawns, mole tunnels do aerate the soil. Moles are also part of the food chain, both as food and by eating pesty larvae. Although they are not listed as endangered yet, if we continue to destroy wetlands, star-nose moles will decline due to loss of habitat … and I for one, would not want a world without a little weirdness in it.

Source: BioKIDS-Kids’ Inquiry of Diverse Species Condylura cristata [Online]