“You’re so sensitive!”
That statement is rarely intended as a compliment. I don’t get too worked up when it’s flung in my direction, though. For one thing, by responding with nonchalance I’m contradicting the unsolicited appraisal. Secondly, I know the assessment can’t be all that accurate because compared to a Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata) I’m practically numb.
True, my eyesight is definitely keener than this densely-furred, humus-hued, hamster-sized insectivorous mammal. Then again, most of my life is spent above-ground, where there’s enough sunlight for my retinal receptors to function. Star-Nosed Moles are overwhelmingly subterranean so their habitat isn’t well illuminated; their visual acuity is poor but their eyes can perceive light and movement.
“I’ll know it when I see it” is but one example of human bias toward the sense of sight, but if we had the sensory systems of Star-Nosed Moles we’d revise that phrase to “I’ll know it when I feel it.” Not with hands and fingers, as someone reading Braille, but connecting to surroundings with an array of 22 appendages positioned at the end of the snout. From the standpoint of brain function, the snout acts as the primary visual organ, according to Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Kenneth Catania, who’s research has focused on the Star-Nosed Mole for two decades.
It almost appears as if this hungry creature has been caught mid-bite while chowing down on a couple of small starfish… that how it looks to me, anyway. As we’ve all been warned, though, our eyes can deceive us. Those protuberances aren’t the limbs of a marine echinoderm heading down the hatch. For one thing, it’s highly unlikely that the firmly terrain-rooted SNM would encounter any kind of starfish.
The tentacles are outgrowths of the skin over the nose, covered with roughly 25,000 Eimer’s organs — epidermis cells stacked to form bulbous papillae innervated by myelinated fibers in the dermis — that provide stellar sensitivity to mechanical, frequency, directional, and velocity stimuli.
The Star-Nosed Mole can be found in a fairly diverse set of habitats, lowlands and high elevations, wet and dry lands, rural and urban landscapes. Unlike other moles, it’s a strong swimmer who forages in streams and ponds.
The population is rather limited geographically, however, with populations along the eastern coast of North America from Nova Scotia and Quebec south to northern Florida, and west to North Dakota and Manitoba,with tendrils of habitat reaching down into the Southeast, Appalachia, and Midwest, causing parts of the range map to appear strangely similar to the creature’s defining facial feature.
The senses play a large role in dietary choices for most vertebrate creatures, including humans. Anyone who watches The Food Network knows that flavor, aroma, and presentation are important concerns for a chef worth their salt… but far less emphasis is placed on touch, even when finger foods are on the menu. Star-Nosed Moles take a very different, but still sensory-focused approach to mealtime. Visuals can be dismissed without a second thought but every morsel that makes its way into the mole’s mouth is considered by those perceptive projections with as much care as a sommelier.
That said, a wine connoisseur savors the ritual of an initial tasting, whereas the Star-Nosed Mole’s entire detect-deliberate-decide-devour process happens in as little as 8 microseconds. In one swift movement too terse to trend on TikTok, the earthworm, snail, aquatic insect, tadpole, or minnow is captured, transferred from tentacles to tweezer-sharp teeth, and then it’s belly bound! The entire Talpidae Family, including moles, shrew moles, and desmans, have super-fast metabolisms, and the SNM is no exception. When your engine runs high and hot, you don’t have time to be a picky eater.
The Star-Nosed Mole’s need for speed isn’t limited to feeding. They grow up fast, too. They enter the world measuring less than 2 in long, tipping the scales at about 1.5g, and, ironically, before their sensory organs are fully developed.
Two short weeks later they’re wearing plush fur coats, their eyes and ears are open, the membrane that protected their nose-star during birth has receded, their tentacles have unfurled and are fully functional. By week three, it’s last call at Mom’s Milk Bar and the kids are heading for the door. At four weeks they’re fully independent, making their own way in the world.
Nine months after that they’ll start searching for that special someone… time to experience ALL the feels.
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