Underground Stars

One of the oddest, least plausible creatures in my Maine world is the Star-nosed Mole. Being moles, they live almost entirely underground, and the only ones I have ever seen are dead. These photos were taken this morning, after my dog spent a long time sniffing very tentatively at something unfamiliar. The mole looked peaceful, and as if it had not been dead for long, with no signs of injury.

Condylura cristata is native to the Northeastern US. It is a small grey creature, about 8 inches long, 1/3 of which is tail. Its head is at the bottom center below:

It has outsized feet with five imposing claws for digging:

But the really remarkable thing is its nose. It ends in 22 fleshy finger-like tentacles:

These are covered in sensory receptors that respond to touch and perhaps vibrations. They can each move independently and flex by 90 degrees, and they are sometimes all grouped together pointing forward, and sometimes opened up like petals. Here is a close-up, showing the 11 tentacles surrounding each nostril:

They are covered in 30,000 tactile receptors called Elmer’s organs, that contain more than 5 times the number of nerves in a human’s hands. The mole “sees” the world through these tactile receptors. The tentacles aren’t used for grasping anything, or for digging, just for feeling their world. Someone described it as the “nose that looks like a hand but acts like an eye.” (Their actual eyes are tiny, just visible in the third photo of this post.)

They tunnel underground, deep down in winter but close to the surface in summer, where the earthworms are. The tunnel pushes up the ground, as you can see in this photo, where the tunnel goes from top to bottom of the picture, across a human trail.

They sometimes break through the surface, as they did in the small round hole bottom right here:

When I was reading up for this post, I discovered to my astonishment that they are very strong swimmers. “My” mole was close to a marshy area and a stream, and apparently this is typical. Although they live on land, many of their burrows end at the water’s edge, and they eat not only earthworms but also aquatic imvetrbertaes. I would give a lot to see one swimming. They use that nose in the water to to sense their surroundings. This wonderful short video shows them foraging both underground and in the water.

It turns out other species may use the same technique, as this fluid dynamics expert explains:

They remind me of a duck-billed platypus, another implausible aquatic fur ball with a cartoon face.

PS Kenneth Catania is a leading expert on star-nosed moles, and he has written a wonderful book about both them and other unlikely creatures, called Great Adaptations. https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691195254/great-adaptations

6 thoughts on “Underground Stars”

  1. And I collected the western most Easter star mole ever recorded on my Michigan property. I guess he got to the lake and could t go any further!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. We share our Earth with so many remarkable creatures. Years ago one of our kitties caught one & I took photos of it. It was still unmauled, but dead.

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