Doug Bruns

The mystery of the star-nosed moles.

In Nature on August 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

Behold, the star-nosed mole

I found a star-nosed mole this morning. Dead. There was no sign of trauma, no puncture wound. I held it by the tail and checked, thinking that perhaps it had been snatched over the night by an owl then left behind for some reason. Lucy, ever curious, wanted to see and I lowered it to her nose and she smelled it diligently. I found an open place on the trail and left it behind in full sight, hoping that something or other would come along and make a meal of it. I don’t much like the thought of it going to waste. Last summer, at about this same spot, a red-tailed hawk perched on an old snag overhead. The hawk’s nest was a hundred yards or so away in the woods, and it came to this field to hunt. It got so that he would watch us pass under, giving us the stink-eye, un-phased, morning after morning. But I have not seen him this year. He would not have let this mole go.

Oddly, two months ago (May 27, according my notes), on this same stretch, the north side which butts up against a cat-tailed bog, I found another dead star-nosed mole. Again, I examined it and found no evidence of violence. That mole was overall smaller than this one and not as plump. The star-nosed mole has a snout consisting of twenty-two little pink tentacles. They are probably prey-sensing devices, but no one seems to be certain. Regardless, the little creature is an odd-looking thing, like something they might now discover on Mars, only with less intelligence. The snout appears to me like gin-blossom gone haywire, as if Uncle Theo’s nose had got too soaked and exploded as he lit his cigar.

A month or so ago I found a short-tailed shrew paddling for its life in a swimming pool. It had been swimming I don’t know how long, but long enough. Every few seconds its little brown head dipped below the surface and I knew it was not going to last. I grabbed its tail and rescued it. I put it stretched out on my palm where the tiny weight of its body relaxed into the flesh of my hand. I lowered my arm to show my granddaughter and the sudden movement aroused the creature such that it clamped onto my finger. I let out a pinched yelp and inverted my hand hoping it would release and fall. But no. It held fast. My granddaughter, alarmed, eyes wide, stared mutely. She will doubtless never touch such a creature.

I recall reading of a naturalist who, while watching a flock of starlings, observed an individual in mid-flight clutch and fall to the ground like a rock. Dead on the wing. Perhaps that is what has happened to my little star-nosed moles, heart attacks, though I am by nature suspicious of coincidence. It remains a mystery.

  1. The shrew bit you. See: The Scorpion and the Frog fable.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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