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Star-nosed Mole

Sopped after a swim, a star-nosed mole provides a rare full-body glimpse before retreating to forage in a Maine wetland. Photo by Dwight Kuhn (DRK Photo), from National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org).
Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Living underground in wet, poorly drained soil is a way of life for star-nosed moles. It is rare to see one. I was surprised to locate one in a relatively dry field but they venture away from saturated soils. This made the 30th mammal species identified at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. It is heartwarming to know we are succeeding with our mission of enhancing biodiversity by maintaining habitat diversity. 

Infrequent encounters with this species has been a treat. My knowledge for the species is limited so I conducted a literature search to learn the best science knowledge. Years ago I picked up a dead one on 17 Mile Road near Long Lake County Park to stuff for Howard Christensen Nature Center. 

People often want to know what human value a species has before they gain interest. We tend to be self-interested before finding reason to care for other creatures. I found good reasons to maintain a healthy habitat for this fellow citizen. The star-nosed mole is studied as a model organism for tactile transduction. Researchers discovered it has the most rapid nerve transmission to the brain for mammals. Study of its electric transmission impulse speed may benefit people who have a prostheses. By accelerating electrical transmissions to the brain, artificial limb mobility could function more like a natural arm, hand, leg or foot. 

Another essential and beneficial service moles provide people is promoting soil aeration for plant roots in saturated soil where oxygen is limited. They spend most of their time burrowing tunnels and are active both day and night. They spend more time on the surface of the ground than do the other mole species. About half of each 24-hour period is spent resting or sleeping. Burrowing animals like voles, shrews, mice, ants, chipmunks, and many others aerate the soil but few live or burrow in wetland saturated soil like star-nosed moles. 

Star-nosed mole from the front. Photo from National Park Service.

This species depends on wetlands for survival and can be threatened by ongoing filling that occurs for new home construction. Our human focus on upstream wetland filling to increase a greater tax base locally has little to do with the wellbeing of human neighbors living downstream. Battles continue over environmental laws to prevent flooding of downstream homes by upstream filling. Some people place personal interests above community welfare. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states Michigan has lost 50 percent of its original wetlands. 

Laws do not focus on the wellbeing of star-nosed moles whose homes are eliminated by wetland filling for construction. Most of us will never see the mole. Their value is important for protecting wetland forest health for birds, mammals, and fish populations. Many landowners utilize aerated forest habitat for timber growth income. Additional human benefits include moles preying on the larvae of insect pests. The value of species can usually be shown to demonstrate benefits for ecological niche, human health and our economy.

Beyond human value, moles have unique characteristics. They are the only mammal able to smell underwater. When swimming in search of food, they blow bubbles they hold with their star-like 22 nose tentacles. They breath in the air contained in the bubble and search for the small animal they smell. In winter, they remain active in streams when terrestrial ground is frozen and they feed on aquatic organisms. Food includes worms, leeches and larvae of caddisflies, midges, crane flies, horse flies, predacious diving beetles, stoneflies, and developing dragonfly and damselfly naiads. Overwintering aquatic organisms also stay active in winter.

Moles are food for owls at night and hawks during the day. Skunks, weasels, minks and other predatory mammals seek them. Aquatic predators include the bullfrog and largemouth bass. They are found across the northern US from the Dakotas to the Atlantic States and in Canada north of the eastern states. 

Like other moles, they have large digging claws, and small eyes that primarily detect light and dark. They are three inches in length with a hairy tail that swells with stored fat. Their fur is black or dark brown. The eastern mole has a short tail and is about twice as large. It is a most interesting find when you explore outdoors. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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