Sunday 10 April 2011

I'm Not a Mole But I Live in a Hole

Image via Wikipedia
Lovely, little moles! Unless you despise them, of course. Moles are small mammals, related to shrews, that have taken to life underground. They use monstrously massive front paws to dig through soil, creating burrows as they scratch and scrape their way to the earthworms that make up the bulk of their diet. They are just about blind, instead using their sense of touch, smell and hearing to find prey. This despite lacking external ears, which would just get full of soil. Their fur is also very short and dense for the same reason and it doesn't experience any more friction when travelling backwards than it does forwards. Basically, you can't rub a mole up the wrong way. Of course, the same can't be said for gardeners. All that excavated earth has to go somewhere, and the mole says it has to go "OUT", resulting in those unsightly molehills.

Moles don't have a monopoly of the underground, though. Here are some more under-earthly critters.

Taupe doréeImage via Wikipedia
Golden Mole
Golden Moles come from South Africa and look quite a lot like good, old fashioned, normal moles, but they actually aren't closely related at all. Their front paws have one great, big claw, one normal one and that's about it. The other three fingers are tiny and useless, and one of them is gone entirely. The hind paws have a full assortment of digits and are webbed to push the earth away. Some make molehills with this refuse, others just push it into the sides of their tunnels. They have tough skin and an even tougher nose to protect their nostrils, while their dense fur keeps the dirt at bay. With smell and touch, they find the insects that make up their din-dins.

Image via Wikipedia
Marsupial Mole
Do you remember the Golden Mole? What!? They were the ones that came from South Africa and looked quite a lot like good, old fashioned, normal moles, but they actually aren't closely related at all. Anyway, the Marsupial one is even MORE similar to the Golden one than the Golden one is to the normal ones. But, being marsupial, this mole isn't closely related to either one. And, of course, they come from Australia, specifically the desert parts in the west. Since we're talking about sand, the Marsupial Mole doesn't so much dig as swim through the desert, allowing tunnels to collapse behind them as they seek out beetle larvae and caterpillars. They have two big claws on their front feet, dense fur and a tough nose to protect their nostrils. The vertebrae of their neck are also fused together, which seems pretty drastic. Then again it's pretty clear that they've made their bed, so I guess they may as well dig through it.

Image by Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr
Cicada Nymph
Cicadas are a kind of true bug which I find look uniquely formidable and ancient. They can get pretty big, too. They're harmless, though. To us at least. The fact that they feed by sucking sap from plants won't ingratiate them to local flora, but I'm at ease with that situation. Adult cicada have wings, youngsters have vicious looking front legs for burrowing into soil. Most cicadas spend 2 to 5 years as these underground nymphs, for other species it's more like 13 or 17 years! Underground! Up to 2.5 metres deep! What are they doing down there? They are sucking the life-juice from plant roots. No, plants don't like cicadas at all...

Image by Al_HikesAZ via Flickr
Desert Tortoise
The Desert Tortoise lives in the desert! Specifically the baking heat of the Mojave and the Sonoran in Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. They reach about a foot in length and have strong, muscular front legs with big claws, big scales and a flattened shape for digging. They spend some 95% of their life in burrows, be they little ones for some quick shade from the sun or palatial ones that can extend for several feet. They can go without water for a whole year, helped in no small part by the fact that their bladder can store 40% of the tortoise's entire body weight in water. I wish I could do that. I mean, 40% would be a bit much, but the option would be nice.

Image source
Mexican Burrowing Toad
The Mexican Burrowing Toad is from Mexico! Also southern Texas and the east and west coasts of Central America. Also it's a frog, not a toad. Still, they got the "burrowing" part exactly right. The "Mexican" Burrowing "Toad" spends much of it's life digging through the ground with it's short, powerful legs, aided by tough appendages on its feet. It eats primarily ants and termites. Perhaps it just likes the taste, or perhaps a nice, juicy colony of endless insects is something to stick around for. These frogs constantly lie in wait of unpredictable heavy rains, when they can surface to mate and lay eggs in water. They might travel a mile to find an appropriate place for their tadpoles, who will emerge as adults after 1 to 3 months.

Image via Wikipedia
Mole Crab
Mole Crabs aren't crabs! They are more closely related to squat lobsters and hermit crabs, which aren't really lobsters and aren't really crabs, respectively. They are sometimes also known as Sand Crabs, which doesn't deal with the "crab" issue, but we should move on. Alright, I should move on, just slow down a little so I can keep up. Mole crabs can be found on beaches all over the world, if you can find them. They can't walk, but instead burrow backwards through damp sand and bury themselves almost entirely. As water rushes over them, they wave their antennae in the air like they just don't care, but they do care, because that's how they catch plankton to eat. Oh yeh, they are only about an inch long, which probably contributes to them also getting called Sand Fleas. But Mole Crabs aren't even insects! Never mind...

Opistognathus aurifronsImage via Wikipedia
Jawfishes live in coral reefs around the world, where the sun is hot and the sand is soft. They need soft sand because they will take a big mouthful of the stuff and then spit it out. It's not boredom, it's how Jawfish create their burrows. Mouthful by mouthful, they shift sand, small stones and shells to create a safe abode to call their own. Oh, and everything that surrounds it, that's his too. Jawfish are territorial and they will defend their turf with all the imperious indignation they can muster. Head held high, Lord Jaw Aurifrons Fish IV, Earl of Burrow-under-Sea surveys his domain. That isn't the only thing those jaws are used for, aside from plucking tiny plankton to eat, males also hold the eggs in their mouth to protect them until they hatch. Maybe he's not such a mean, old Mr. Fish after all?

Mole cricketImage via Wikipedia
Mole Cricket
Mole Crickets exist on every continent but are nocturnal and live almost entirely underground, such that they aren't often seen. They're quite unmistakable, reaching some 5 centimetres (2 inches) in length and armed with gigantic front legs for carving their subterranean path. They are omnivorous, eating worms, larva and roots. They still chirp even though they are under the earth. To amplify the sound, they construct a double horn structure in their burrow (here's a single horn). Despite all that, mole crickets can still fly. In fact, the desire to mate can inspire them to travel up to 5 miles in search of... er, a double horn, I suppose.


Fuzzball Dave said...

First! :D it me or does digging seem like a fad for all different kingdoms of animals?

Joseph JG said...

I don't think it's just you! Burrowing seems to be a popular lifestyle all over the place. I guess it stands to reason, what with the ground following us almost everywhere we go!

Emma Springfield said...

I really enjoyed taking a look at all the different burrowing creatures. I felt like I had a special treat seeing more than one animal today.

TexWisGirl said...

i get claustrophobic just thinking about the life of a mole - no light, no AIR, just DIRT! UGH!!! Practically hyperventilating just thinking about it!!!

Crunchy said...

Can you imagine sitting underground for 17 years, nibbling on sap? I feel like I'd get bored of that after 10 minutes. I'd literally go insane after a few weeks. Yet those little buggers do it for 17 years. Every one of them.

Remind me never to mess with a cicada.

Joseph JG said...

@Emma: I'm glad you liked it!

@texwisgirl: I know! It's quite amazing the kinds of lives different animals can lead. Definitely not for me, though!

@Crunchy: 17 years... it really is an extraordinary amount of time. When I think of all the things I'd done by the time I was 17 and compare it with cicada... madness!