Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Three Moles

Around this time of year, after the snow melts from lawns and pastures, mounds and ridges of dirt appear at the surface, looking like freshly tilled soil.

This is the work of a mole. In parts of New England, it could be one of three species.

Eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), has a nearly naked tail
photo from Wikipedia

Hairy-tailed mole (Parascalops breweri) has a hairy tail!
photo by Roger W. Barbour

Star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) has a very unique nose
photo from Wikipedia

All three moles are similar in size - bigger than a mouse and smaller than a chipmunk. They are the body builders of the subterranean world, with enlarged, powerful shoulder muscles, no neck, large spade-like front feet turned outward for digging. Moles have thick, velvety fur, short, spindle-shaped tails, tiny, mostly hidden eyes, and no external ear flaps. All are adaptations for living underground. Moles are also good swimmers.

Burrowing occupies most of their time. Moles tunnel using something akin to the breaststroke, bringing their front feet together in front of the nose and thrusting sideways, pushing their nose forward in the space created. They can also use their front legs like a bulldozer pushing soil around.

Moles build several kinds of tunnels. They maintain a deep (up to a foot or more) underground, fortress-like, network of tunnels that is used year-round and connects to the nest. The construction of deep tunnels results in the surface mounds of dirt or mole hills. Shallow tunnels are used in the hunt for food, primarily earthworms and insect larvae, which are found just beneath the surface. These tunnels result in the ridges of soil seen above ground.

Mounds and ridges of soil created by moles can easily be raked around during spring yard work. It is a good sign that moles are actively aerating the yard in search of insect grubs. Trying to rid the lawn of grubs to control moles is not effective since moles will switch to earthworms or some other insect prey. The best way to reduce "damage" from moles, is to reduce watering of the lawn. Over-watering brings earthworms and insects closer to the surface, and the moles follow. Converting more lawn to gardens, paths, and natural habitat will also solve some of the problem. And don't make a mountain out of a mole hill.

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