The Fascinating Subterranean Life of Moles
“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” Mole from “The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame
One of the most fascinating animals residing in our region is one we almost never see. In fact, I would be hard pressed to recall a time I saw a mole, though I certainly have seen the meandering raised turf of their subterranean tunnels.
Although moles burrow in the ground like many rodents, they are not rodents but members of the mammalian order Insectivora, which also includes shrews. They have evolved to live a life mostly underground and are fascinating creatures covered by a thin layer of skin to protect them from dirt and soil. Their ears don’t have external openings and their fur is extremely soft and flexible making it easy to move forward and backward in their tunnels without friction. They have large flat front feet with long claws, which allow them to dig rapidly through the soil in their search for their typical prey of grubs, earthworms, and other insects.
There are six species of moles in North America, and here in The Last Green Valley we have two species – the Eastern mole, and the star-nose mole. A third species, the hairy-tailed mole, is also found in western Massachusetts and northwestern Connecticut.
The Eastern mole is fairly common in southern New England but seen infrequently. Detection is often by finding the ridges left by its tunnelling. They are usually found in fields, lawns and wooded areas that aren’t too wet, but less so in higher elevations in the northern parts of the region. It is 6 inches long, with blackish brown fur, a short hairless tail and a partly bare snout. During cold weather it will tunnel deep in the ground below the frost line where it will make a nest for raising its young.
The star-nosed mole is common throughout New England and active year-round in wet or moist soils near water, and less common in upland areas. It can burrow through soil, mud and snow, and also has tunnels leading to water. It gets its name by a strange star shaped nose described in one publication as “spaghetti faced” with 11 protuberances that are very sensitive and may help it detect prey by sensing electrical impulses underwater. It is 7 inches long and has a long hairy tail. Along with the star-shaped nose, the long tail helps identify in from the Eastern mole.
The hairy-tailed mole prefers to live in the loose soil under forests and fields and may come out of its tunnels at night. It is clearly distinguished from the Eastern mole by its short but heavily furred tail.
Moles are insectivores that feed almost exclusively underground. They are known for eating earthworms but also eat lawn grubs, snails, beetles, millipedes and a variety of nuts.
One of my favorite nature and science writers is Sy Montgomery, and I have several of her books. Here are several interesting tidbits of information from her essay on moles from her 2002 book “The Wild Outside Your Window.”
“Mole populations can triple between May and June, when there may be as many as eleven per acre. At the tender age of ten weeks, males quest after their own territories, often traveling above ground…”
“Each moles’ burrow system consists of several nests and two types of tunnels. With big, powerful shoulders and shoveling hands, moles almost swim through the soft, shallow soil to create their superficial tunnels – the ridged eruptions that wend through gardens and lawns. Breast-stroking, they push the loose dirt up and aside.”
“They create molehills as they dig deeper tunnels. At depths of 10 to 20 inches, they shear away heavy soil with alternating strokes of their hands, pushing it to a side tunnel that leads to the surface.”
“The deep tunnels are used for years, allowing the architect to live a leisurely life once his network is established. Moles don’t dig new tunnels each time they forage, and, in fact, a very active mole territory may have few molehills. They appear only when a new tunnel system is constructed, or when an existing one is paired or extended.”
“Moles are amazingly strong. The eastern mole can move 32 times its own body weight, which ranges from 2.3 to 4 ounces.”
“And moles move fast. That’s partially a consequence of their velvety fur; it offers no friction whichever way it’s rubbed, so a mole can sail through its polished tunnel.”
“A moles world is a dark and tactile one as rich and wonderous as a dog’s world of scent. And to us, just as incomprehensible.”
As spring makes is slow advance through our region, I’ll be looking for the raised ridges and eruptions in the soil around my property. I’ll be happy to know that moles are busy at work, somewhere under foot, happy in their own subterranean world.
We live in a special place called The Last Green Valley and share our world with amazing animals of all sorts – including moles. I hope you’ll join me as we enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.
Information for this column was gleaned from “The Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England,” CT DEEP Fact Sheet on moles in Connecticut, and “The Wild Our Your Window,” by Sy Montgomery.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and can be reached at 860-774-3300 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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