MOLES, SHREW MOLES, AND DESMANS – Talpidae

MOLES, SHREW MOLES, AND DESMANS

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Moles are small, short-legged, smooth-furred animals with tiny, sometimes hidden eyes, and long, nearly naked snouts.

Many land-living moles have large, wide, shovel-like front feet adapted for digging through the soil. Some moles, including the desman animal, are swimmers and have slender, webbed forefeet.

Shrew moles, which live on land but dig little, if at all, have feet that are neither shovel-like nor webbed. Overall, adult mole animal size from about 2.4 to 17.0 inches (6 to 43 centimeters) in body length and another 0.6 to 8.3 inches (1.5 to 21.5 centimeters) in tail length. They weigh from 0.4 ounces (12 grams) in the smallest species to 7.8 ounces (220 grams) in the largest.

GEOGRAPHIC RANGE

Moles, shrew moles, and desmans are found in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and much of Europe and Asia.

HABITAT

About three-quarters of the species in this family live much of their lives underground. A few live above ground on land, and others spend a good deal of their time in or near the water.

Those that prefer the water usually make their homes near fresh water, but a few will also enter brackish water, water that is somewhat salty.

DIET

The primary diet among the moles is insects, earthworms, centipedes, and other invertebrates, animals without backbones, but many will also eat roots and other parts of plants. Water-living species may also include frogs and fish in their diet.

BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION

Most moles have long and narrow snouts that they are able to wiggle and bend. The snout tip has tiny Elmer’s organs that the mole uses to sense its environment and to find prey. Desmans that spend a good amount of time underwater use their snouts for several purposes. In one common behavior, a desman will stick just its snout tip out of the water to sniff the air for prey as well as predators, animals that hunt them for food. They will also dig through the water bottom with their snouts looking for food.

Some moles are active mainly at night, but others move around both day and night. The land-living, digging species are capable of making tunnels quickly for such a small mole animal.

The eastern mole, which is less than 12 inches (30 centimeters) long from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, can tunnel up to 15 feet (4.6 meters) in a single hour, and more than 100 feet (30 meters) in a day. Their tunnels are often visible from above ground, and look like long, sometimes-branching strings of broken ground. These are called mole runs. A molehill is a circular mound of dirt that is created when the mole pops above ground from the tunnel. Both the landliving and the water-loving species also dig deeper chambers for breeding and to escape the winter cold. Moles usually spend their lives alone, although some are more social. Reports suggest that Russian desmans may share their dens on occasion.

After mating one or two months earlier, most moles have one set, or litter, of about three to five babies in early to midsummer. A few species have one or more additional litters later in the year. The young are helpless and naked at birth, but after approximately four to six weeks, they are ready to leave the mother. The young can have babies of their own within a year.

MOLES, SHREW MOLES, DESMANS, AND PEOPLE

The land-living, tunneling moles have the greatest contact with humans. Their tunneling activity is beneficial in that it loosens the soil and actually helps plants to grow, but their plant-eating habits and the visible mole runs frequently make them an unwelcome guest in yards, gardens, and farm fields.

At one time, people also hunted moles for their silky fur, which was used for collars and cuffs on women’s clothing. People even hunted some species, like the Russian desman, for their scent, which was used in perfumes.

CONSERVATION STATUS

According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), two species are Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Five species are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild, and three are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. That means that nearly one quarter of all mole species are at some risk. The U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service lists no species as endangered. Many of the at-risk moles have small populations and/or live in habitats that are disappearing due to human activity. In addition, some species are facing threats from hunting or from introduced species that are invading their habitat. The Vulnerable Russian desman, for example, is now competing for food and shelter with the introduced muskrat and coypu (KOY-poo).