The presence of some forms of wildlife is easy to note while others are nearly impossible to detect. By restricting activities to places hidden from view, many creatures are able to maintain a secretive life. Small size and protective coloration can further reduce the chances of some animals from ever being glimpsed even on those occasions when they temporarily venture into a more exposed location. Not producing a call or any audible sound can also add to the stealth-like nature of many creatures, and failing to leave any visible sign of feeding or travel routes can make an animal unknown in those areas in which it is abundant.
While the wildlife community in the Adirondacks harbors many such elusive entities, it is the southern red-backed vole that tops the list of our region’s most abundant, yet rarely seen mammals.
Like all voles, the southern red-backed vole is a mouse-size rodent with short, rounded ears, small, beady eyes, and a tail that is less than half the length of its body. This particular species gets its name from the rusty-tan color of its back, similar in shade to that of the red squirrel.
As is the case with other voles, this species confines its activities to the ground and the uppermost layer of the soil. Although the vole is known to travel through tunnels just below the soil’s surface, this creature seldom excavates such passageways; rather it tends to take advantage of the subterranean corridors created by the mole.
The southern red-backed vole exhibits a strong preference for damp conifer and mixed forests, especially where there is an abundance of fallen logs and dead limbs covering the ground. Such items provide this ground dweller with the cover it needs to travel about its roughly one acre territory. By using the space below a downed trunk or large branch, this small mammal is able to stay out of sight of the many predatory creatures that enjoy dining on its flesh. Should a fox, weasel, fisher or other carnivore happen to detect a vole as it scurries along beneath a massive piece of forest debris, this creature is often able to retreat underground when an attacker’s paw attempts to grab it.
Forests with an abundance of young seedlings and saplings for ground cover are also well populated with red-backed voles, however such settings do not seem to support the same high density of voles as areas in which dead and decaying limbs, branches, tops and trunks litter the forest floor.
Some naturalists believe that the preference of the southern red-backed vole for sections of mature woodlands is the result of its need for certain foods. While this vole is known to consume a wide selection of seeds, berries, plant stems, and tender foliage of ground plants, it also eats various forms of mushrooms and fungus that develop in the soil and on decaying objects. A high concentration of rotting matter on the forest floor promotes the growth of non-green organisms by providing a rich source of organic compounds on which these organisms depend. Also, rotting wood and other dead matter help absorb water and keep the ground moist during dry periods, which is essential for organisms of decay.
Like mice, the voles have a high rate of reproduction which allows them to maintain a viable population despite regular losses from predators. The red-backed vole begins to breed in early spring, often before the snow has finally disappeared from the forest floor. The female bears her first litter less than 3 weeks later in a nest tucked beneath an old stump, log or uprooted tree. Less than a month later, the young have been weaned and are beginning to explore the world of dead needles, fallen leaves and rotting chunks of wood on the forest floor. By the time these individuals attain the age of two months, they are nearing sexual maturity and start to breed themselves which further adds to the developing population.
The southern red-backed vole is as abundant as any small mammal in the vast expanses of evergreen and mixed forests that cover much of the Park. Because of the mature condition of many of our woodlands, the southern red-backed vole thrives, yet is never seen by hikers, campers and those individuals that have a home in the middle of their domain. Because the vole tends to avoid entering lean-tos, campsites, and homes, unlike its distant relative the mouse, it is seldom noted; the mouse is much observed. As a general rule, it is futile to try to see a red-backed vole in the wilds. If you try hard enough, you may encounter evidence of their presence, but your time is probably better spent swatting black flies and attempting to discourage mice from chewing on your supply of food.
Photo: Southern red-backed vole (Myodes gapperi) by Wikimedia user D. Gordon E. Robertson.