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May 03

Bizarre Animal of the Week: Star-Nosed Mole

From certain angles, the star-nosed mole almost looks like any other mole. It’s small and black, with thick velvety fur and big, burrowing feet. But then you notice that outrageous nose. It looks like a cross between a group of wriggling maggots and a pink sea anemone. This nose is the most sensitive tactile instrument in the mammalian world.

The ‘star’ is comprised of twenty-two fleshy, mobile tentacles, each of which are bountifully equipped with minute sensory receptors. The mole may be virtually blind, but its unique nasal appendages are so sensitive that they enable it to build up an accurate picture of its surroundings.

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Photo: Kenneth Catania

In fact, the mole’s nose is so sensitive that the animal holds the distinction of being the fastest-eating mammal in the world. After detecting something with its nose, the mole’s brain decides in the unfathomably short time of 8 milliseconds whether it is edible or not, which is seven times faster than a human can blink and about the limit of the speed of neurons – it biologically cannot go any faster. If the star-nosed mole decides that whatever it found is indeed edible, it will have consumed it within 120 milliseconds. If you happened to be an underground earthworm, there surely cannot be a more feared predator.

But even invertebrates that live underwater are not safe. The star-nosed mole often builds its burrow with an entrance leading into a nearby stream. With its spade-like feet, it is an effective swimmer and it can use its entrance to gain access to the stream to look for invertebrates even after the surface of the water has frozen over in winter. Like an aquatic bloodhound, it can even track its prey underwater. It blows a bubble out of each nostril, allowing odour molecules to cross from the water into the small pocket of air. The mole then sucks the bubbles back in and analyses the odour molecules to see if there is food nearby.

They say you shouldn’t rush your food because it can give you hiccups or even flatulence.The star-nosed mole disagrees. It eats about as fast as an animal physically can, and it doesn’t give off any excess gas… that we know of anyway.

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