Monday, March 19, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife: The Star-Nosed Mole

For many Adirondack residents, the onset of mud season brings about the annual problem of water in the basement. Run-off from melting snow and rain, unable to percolate into the still frozen soil, pools on the ground and eventually drains to the lowest spot available. The foundation of older homes may collect some of this water, as do surface tunnels created by small creatures like moles and voles.

While spring flooding can be a serious survival issue for some subterranean mammals, it is not believed to be of any major concern to the star-nosed mole, one of the least physically attractive forms of wildlife in the Adirondacks.
With its odd-shaped nose, composed of eleven sets of tentacles and an upper body that seems disproportionately large compared to other similar sized creatures, the star-nosed mole projects a rather grotesque image. The nearly two dozen fleshy pink projections that radiate from the end of its snout characterize this species of mole. This distinct structure is a highly sensitive sensory organ designed to detect any invertebrates that are nearby. Several researchers suspect that these tentacles, along with sniffing out various odors, are able to sense the ultra weak electric impulses produced by the nervous systems of lower life forms. Relying on both odor analysis and electric stimulation, the star-nosed mole is able to identify points in the soil in which food is likely to exist. By quickly digging towards these spots, this mole is often able to appease its incessant appetite.
While soil invertebrates are regularly ingested by this mole, small forms of life that reside in aquatic settings are believed to compose the bulk of this mammal’s diet.

A reliance on animal life in water causes the star-nosed mole to inhabit forests and fields in which the soil is fairly rich and which exist close to a riparian setting. The banks of rivers and streams, the land around marshes, and locations adjacent to lakes and ponds are all areas in which this unique ground dweller occurs. (Places that are well away from any aquatic environment would be the haunts of the hairy-tailed mole, another common Adirondack mammal.)

After taking a deep breath, the star-nosed mole regularly enters the water, even during winter. The network of tunnels which this creature maintains typically has numerous submerged entrances that connect with the water. Once it exits its burrow, the mole probes the bottom for only a few seconds with its special nose to locate a meal. Even when this mammal is totally submerged, it has the unique ability to detect and analyze smells from its watery surroundings.

Scientists have determined that the star-nosed mole can more quickly respond to a positive stimulus of its nervous system that food is nearby than any other form of wildlife. This allows the mole to scan a small area, decide instantly whether it should lunge forward and gulp down the item in front of it, or temporarily abandon its efforts and immediately return to the surface for a breath of fresh air.

Because of its high metabolism, even when immersed in frigid water, the star-nosed mole is only able to hold it’s breath for about 15 seconds. This provides the mole with only a brief opportunity to get to the bottom, find a meal, and then locate a place where it can catch its breath. However, the exceptionally quick pace at which this mole functions allows it to cram all of these essential tasks into an incredibly short span of time.

Even though portions of its underground passageways may be completely filled with water at various times of the year, there inevitably are small air pockets scattered along its labyrinth of tunnels on which this mammal relies for meeting its frequent demand for oxygen. During winter, the star-nosed mole is known to use small air pockets that form under the ice when it ventures from its burrow and is unable to come to the surface to fill its lungs with air. During the warmer seasons, the star-nosed mole simply comes to the surface before diving again in its quest for aquatic critters.

It is most unusual to see a star-nosed mole working a section of a stream, or marsh during the summer. It is not unusual, however, to notice the sizeable mounds of soil which this creature regularly expel from its tunnel complex after the ground thaws in spring. While basement flooding may be a nuisance for some animals, and a survival threat to others, it becomes just another annual event in the life of the star-nosed mole.

Photo: Star-nosed Mole (Courtesy Wikipedia).


Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.




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