Wildlife focus: the mole

Hello nature fans!

I’m starting a new blog series all about wildlife, focusing on a particular species each time in depth. In general, I’ll probably talk about the features of the species, the role it fulfills within its ecosystem, the folklore surrounding it, and species idiosyncrasies, including a few interesting facts. I’m starting with the humble mole.

The Mole

A nocturnal creature that is practically blind, it moves awkwardly above ground and expertly tunnels below. This mammal digs and tunnels its way through the soil, leaving those familiar molehills dotted about the landscape. They have sharp claws, soft velvety fur and eat earthworms and, surprisingly, nuts.

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How to spot a mole

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust gives this helpful advice on how to identify moles:

The European mole is a small mammal with a body length of between 10-14cm, weighing between 75-120g. They have a cylindrical body covered with dense black fur, a pointed snout, short tail and spade like forelegs with long sharp claws which they use for digging tunnels.

If you manage to get really close to a mole you might be able to notice that they have an extra thumb on their forepaws, a feature that evolution has decided is helpful for moles, meaning that they basically have two thumbs. You can find moles all over the UK and they seem to be doing fine, despite some gardeners and landowners viewing them as pests.

Diet

Moles primarily eat earthworms, which they collect underground in specially built ‘mole runs’ that are essentially a series of tunnels – the mole can sense when a worm falls into the channel and quickly locates and eats it. They can even store earthworms in their larders to eat later as their saliva contains a toxin that paralyses the worm.

Breeding

Moles breed between February and May. Males woo females by wandering into unknown territory and letting off high-pitched squeals. If a match is successful, the young are born between March and April and each brood generally contains 3-5 youngsters, who depart the nest after about 6 weeks.

Random Facts

  1. Moles can dig 20 yards of tunnels each day.
  2. A mole can dig through 14m in 1 hour
  3. Males are called ‘boars’, females ‘sows’, and a group of moles is a ‘labour’.
  4. They have a complex mental map of their undergound tunnels.
  5. The texture of fur allows it to lie in any direction so it can easily reverse in a tunnel.
  6. They have no external ears.

The Burrow by Kafka

Franz Kafka wrote an exceptional story about a mole. It was unfinished and published posthumously, like most of his work, and it’s the most strikingly strange idea: essentially a monologue by a mole, who adores his carefully constructed underground palace of tunnels and feels an ever-growing threat of ‘the beast’ who could shatter it at any moment. Read into that what you will. Human irrationality and anxiety of an inevitable yet unidentifiable destroyer (i.e. death)? If you’re interested, you can buy it here.

Here are a few photos of a mole I managed to take at Strumpshaw in Norfolk in the summer. I just happened to see one above ground – a very rare treat. 

5 interesting new species we discovered in 2016

It’s not all doom and gloom and the Sixth Mass Extinction – scientists have been discovering new species as well as pronouncing their imminent demist. As our knowledge and technology improves, researchers are able to access more and more remote areas and discover interesting species that are completely new to science – before it is too late. Here’s a round up of my favourites.

  • The Ziggy Stardust Snake – for good reason this is my favourite new species, and for good reason they named it after the late great Bowie’s alter personality Ziggy, with it’s striking iridescent rainbow head.

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  • The Seadragon – OK, so I seem to be making a list of species with the coolest names. A relative of the seahorse, it has a long narrow body, with dorsal and pectoral fins.

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  • Harry Potter Sorting Hat Spider – again, the cool name theme. It was discovered in a mountainous region of south-west India and it mimics foliage to hide from predators

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  • Four-penised milipede – such a thing exists. 414 legs, 200 poison glands, 4 penises, and no eyes. So it goes.

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  •  Klingon newt – one of 163 new species, along with the Ziggy snake, that were discovered in 2015 along the Mekong delta, a hugely ecologically diverse.

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First ever bird extinction in the Galapagos

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The idyllic islands of the Galapagos have been thought of as paradise on earth ever since Charles Darwin studied its creatures when he traveled there on The Beagle. It has a vast array of long-lost species, endemic to the archipelago, making it one of the most species-rich habitats on earth.

But the Galapagos have recently reported its first ever extinct species.

The California Academy of the Sciences (CAL) have re-evaluated the status of two subspecies of Vermilion Flycatchers, a songbird found only on these islands. The San Cristóbal Island Vermilion Flycatcher was last spotted in 1987 and is believed to be the first modern extinction recorded on the islands. It hasn’t been seen in decades, but importantly CAL’s recent study has shown it to be not a subspecies but a distinct species in its own right, and therefore this is the first bird extinction.

First – but could it be the last? The Galapagos islands face huge threats from invasive species and from the destructive changes of tourism. You can read here about how the Galapagos Conservation Trust is trying to preserve its endemic species that are so fascinating, so scientifically important, and so culturally valuable.

 

The Sixth Mass Extinction Event Is Definitely Underway

According to new international research conducted by the Stanford Woods Institute, human activity has prompted the beginning of the Sixth Mass Extinction event recorded on earth, threatening to wipe out hundreds of thousands of species, including humans.

Professor Paul Ehrlich offers what he claims to be a “conservative estimate” of species loss due to human behaviour, which he puts at 100 times faster than the background rate of extinction (a base rate of extinction if humans were absent.) The team deliberately underestimated their estimates because recording species loss is notoriously difficult, yet their statistics are all the more shocking for it.

A devastating mixture of habitat loss, climate change, pollution and overpopulation has led to an environmental disaster that scientists refer to as the Holocene extinction. It is expected that this extinction event will be as severe as the End-Crustaceous Mass Extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That was, of course, due to an asteroid collision; this mass extinction is entirely due to human behaviour.

International Union for Conservation of Nature chart showing species loss over the last century.

And why should we care that species are dying out while humans industrialize the planet? We need biodiversity: it pollinates and irrigates our crops, purifies our water, and produces our food. We are entirely dependent on biodiversity.