Science

The “star” of Wetlands – The Story of Morris

The Art of Storytelling -Happy Spring and enjoy the last chapter of the winter tracking series.

A photo of a wetland on a sunny day with snow covering it.

During the winter, when the ground is frozen in varying shades of white, gray, and sometimes shades of blue, a wetland often appears devoid of life. No movement. No sound. Have all the amphibians, birds and mammals gone away?

Chapter 6: The “star” of wetlands; Morris digs and swims.

When I say I am the star of many Vermont wetlands, I actually mean it. Not only do I have a star shaped nose but I am also in the Guinness Book of World Records (TWICE)!  Truth.  I hold the record for the fastest forager/eater AND I hold the record for being the first mammal to be caught sniffing out prey underwater. That’s right, while physically underwater I can smell the meal I want to catch! So a gold star for me and my overall family! But maybe I am getting ahead of myself, since we haven’t even met yet. My apologies.

My name is Morris. I live in the wetland that you see in the photo above.A mole poking its body out of a hole in a wetland. I am a star-nosed mole and I am currently three years old; I am an old mole…we typically only live to be 3-4 years old, so this very well may be my last winter. That’s okay, I have lived a good life. We pack in a lot of living during our short lives and I am going share with you just how we do that. As an old mole, I enjoy a good story telling session if I have an appreciative audience, and I think you might just be the kind to listen to an old mole recount his younger days. I’d offer you an earthworm, but I am not so sure you would find it nearly as tasty as I do. Since this is a true story, I won’t start it with “Once upon a time”, instead I’ll simply start from the beginning.

I was born in June in a nesting chamber filled with dry leaves and grasses that my mother had collected. I was one of a litter of five. Contrary to the above photo of me with my dark fur and starry nose, as a new born I was pink and hairless, had closed eyes and ears, and even my nose, the tentacles of my nose that make up my “star”, was folded up in a thin membrane. Pretty helpless little critter I was, but we grow up quickly. My eyes opened, although I am considered blind, but more importantly my nose, which I need in order to hunt for my food, became active within 2 week. By the time I turned one month old, I was independent and fending for myself! I grew to be 7.5 inches big and when I was about 10 months old I was looking for a mate to start my own family. I am happy to say that I am a grandfather many times over. My mate and I have successfully raised up three litters of young ones, not bad if I do say so myself.

Now let’s see, you are out here doing some tracking….perhaps if I hadn’t stuck out my head at the time that I did you would have passed me by? That’s all right, I heard you coming and thought to myself that I wouldn’t mind a bit of company on this winter day that is starting to turn to spring. But let me tell you what tracks and signs to look for in the future if you are trying to seek me or another star-nosed mole again.

First, seeing as you made it here to the wetland, you are in the right place, I’ll give you that. We star-nosed moles prefer to live in and along the edges of wetlands, lakes and streams. We are often found living in colonies or as we say “a mole community” in the organic muck next to water or in other areas where the soils are saturated. Most of the time we tunnel around looking for food, shallow tunnels in the warm seasons and deeper tunnels during winter for added protection from the cold. You see we are active year-round. No hibernation for us. So one way to tell if we are around is by noticing evidence of our tunneling system. Here is a picture of what they would look like through the snow or if we were digging and the snow started to melt, like at this time of year.

A mole tunnel track can be found under the snow.      A mole tunnel after the snow has started melting.

Now don’t be mistaking my tunnels for that of other mice, voles, and moles. My tunnels are quite big around, between 1.25 and 2.5 inches wide in diameter and they will start from the ground surface and go as deep as almost 2 feet deep! When I push loose dirt to the ground surface, I can leave a mound poking up about 6-9 inches high and between 1-2 feet wide. I might have short legs but I have powerful paws and claws. I even create tunnels underneath the water. When I get going, I can dig 7-8 ft per hour, not bad for a little feller such as myself. Of course having to dig and hunt for your food instead of just opening up the refrigerator is a powerful motivator.

Now as I said before, I am pretty much blind by definition since my eyes are pretty useless, but I can still “see”, even when under the ground or in the water. Remember my star shaped nose, well it is pretty unique in what it allows me to do. First off my nose is my nose, but what you most often see are the tentacles that surround my nose. I have 11 tentacles on each side of my nose which I can retract or leave out as needed. My nose is a powerful sensory organ that helps me to see as much as it allows me to smell. I can use it to feel the electric pulse from the animals I am hunting and can identify my food through touch, like Braille read by a blind person. So, what do I eat…now that’s a good question and I think it will surprise you!

I do catch some of my food in the ground while I am digging. I like to munch on beetle larvae, earthworms, and ants. What might surprise you though is that since I live near water, between 75-90% of my food actually comes from beneath the water. My fur is water resistant and I can blow bubbles and suck them back in with my nose to allow me to smell for my food while under water. I prefer eating aquatic insects and annelids, but I will also eat mollusks, crustacea, small amphibians and small fish. A starnosed mole swimming through water.Even during the winter I swim under the ice, probe the bottom sediments with my star-like tentacles and go after bottom-dwelling aquatic invertebrates. Here are some photos of me swimming, blowing bubbles, and diving to the rocky bottom looking for food. What might also surprise you is that instead of storing fat in my belly region, I can use my long scaly, fleshy, hair covered tail to store fat, causing it to swell up so that I can make it through the winter and be in good shape to mate each spring.A star-nosed mole tentacles

And well now I have made it through my third winter. Not all of us do as you probably well know. There are a number of predators that would like to make a meal out of us. You have already met two of them in this story-telling series, Mrs. Fox and Mr. and Mrs. Barred Owl. Of course other owls, hawks, skunks, minks, weasels, snakes, fish (such as the northern pike), and unfortunately domestic cats hunt us as well. So I have been pretty lucky.

One time I was “found” by a photographer. Like you she was out during a nice day in the winter and I was out frolicking. You know those winter days when you get that hint of spring and it just makes you felt a little restless inside. Well that is how it happened. You will probably not see me running on top of the snow usually, but Ann (that was her name), was in the right place at the right time as I scampered across the snow before burrowing back down underneath. I can actually run fairly quickly when I have to! For a short distance I can run at a speed of 4-5 mph, not bad for my short little legs, now is it! She did startle me; however, she sent me a copy of the photos she took that day…here let me share them with you…I can’t really see them but that’s okay. It was a kind gesture. Do they make my tail look fat? I hope so; it was time for the mating season and I was feeling pretty good if I remember!

A startled mole runs for cover in the snow.A mole digging into the snow to avoid being photographed.

Anyway, that is my story, Morris’s story. I thank you for your patience in listening to an old mole. I must admit, my old bones are looking forward to this coming spring. It’s nice to smell and hear the wetland “wake up”. I enjoy smelling the plants grow, the flowers bloom…some of the wetland flowers are real fragrant. I also like to hear the birds again that have returned from warmer places. Some of these birds only hang out in wetlands, like the marsh wren, yellow warbler, and of course the herons. Perhaps you should come again for another visit one day and bring your camera. Never know what you might see. I may just pop my head out of my tunnel again when I hear you coming. But for now, well I am feeling just a little cold with the snow still on the ground and a wee bit hungry. So if you will excuse me, I’m going to duck back down into my tunnels, warm up and find myself something to nibble on. Good luck with the rest of your winter tracking here in the wetland and have a very happy spring.