The star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata), a small mammal, has one of the most unique schnozzes in the animal kingdom—its nose includes 22 super-sensitive, flexible, fleshy tentacles, or "rays" shaped like a sunburst around the nostrils.
The mole's tentacles do not contain muscles or bones, but are connected by tendons to the mole's skull. Its rays are covered with 25,000 sensory receptors, little bumps called Eimer's organs. Eimer's organs are found in varying quantities on nearly all species of moles, but none of the other species have nearly so many as the star-nosed mole. These receptors allow fast connections to the brain about what the mole is sensing, and will let it find and identify an object, determine if it's edible, and consume it if it is—all in a quarter of a second. This speed makes the star-nosed mole the fastest-eating animal.
The star-nosed mole grows to be up to four inches in length, about the same size as a hamster or small rat. It's covered in brown, water-repellent fur. During the colder winter months, the mole stores extra fat in its tail, causing the tail to swell up to four times in diameter. It has long, sharp claws to help it dig.
While many moles live in dry burrows, this species can be found in more boggy places, such as marshes and deciduous forests, in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. Its burrows often have several exits, including ones that end underwater. The star-nosed mole can swim and can stay underwater for 30 seconds at a time, even swimming beneath ice in the winter to help it find food.
The star-nosed mole usually bears young once a year, usually in the late spring, and has litters of 2–7 babies. The pups are born hairless, with closed eyes and ears, and with the tentacles folded back toward the rest of the face.
It's not only its tentacles that make this mole's nose unusual. When underwater, the star-nosed mole will quickly blow bubbles of air out of its nostrils at various objects and then quickly suck the air bubbles back in. Scientists have surmised this serves to let the mole "smell" the objects with which the air bubbles have come into contact. This helps the mole, which is nearly blind, hunt beneath the surface of the water.
Like most moles, the star-nosed mole is an insectivore, eating aquatic bugs, as well as earthworms and small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Its predators include hawks, owls, foxes, minks, weasels, skunks, cats, dogs, bullfrogs, and bigger freshwater fish, such as the northern pike and largemouth bass.
Scientists are studying the star-nosed mole's nose because its design makes it receptive to detecting minute seismic waves and therefore help predict earthquakes earlier. If you're interested in other ways scientists are modeling inventions after animals, check out some of Science NetLinks' resources on biomimicry: Death-Defying Cockroaches, Cooling from Nature, Robo Roaches, and Organisms in Motion: Practical Applications of Biological Research.
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