Animal Record Holders
Fastest Eating Mammal
If you read our previous article on the European mole, you’ll know that The Nature Nook is celebrating moles of all kinds throughout January. Today, we’ll be looking at a mole that also happens to be a record holder. It’s the iconically bizarre star-nosed mole, and it has been named the fastest eating mammal in the world.
In many regards, the star-nosed mole is just like any other typical mole. It’s small and black, with thick, velvety fur and big, burrowing feet. But, unmistakeably, it also has that outrageous, tentacled snout, which resembles a cross between a group of wriggling maggots and a pink sea anemone. It may look quite comical, but this multi-purpose nose is part food-finder, part snorkel, part finger – almost like a miniature version of an elephant’s trunk. It turns out the star-nosed mole is easily one of the most skilled sniffers on the planet – even when underwater.
This ‘star’, from where the mole quite clearly gets its name, is the most sensitive tactile instrument in the mammalian world. It is comprised of 22 fleshy, mobile tentacles arranged in a circle, each of which are bountifully equipped with minute sensory receptors called Eimer’s organs – over 25,000 of them in total. Like many other moles, it is functionally blind, but its unique nasal appendages, which are in constant rapid motion, give the animal an extraordinarily sensitive and accurately directed sense of touch, enabling it to build up a picture of its surroundings.
In fact, the nose of this mole is so sensitive and responsive that the animal holds the distinction of being the fastest foraging and fastest eating mammal in the world. After detecting something with its nose, the mole can decide in a mere 8 milliseconds whether it is edible or not – that’s over 10 times faster than a human can blink and about the limit of the speed of neurons. Biologically, it cannot happen any faster. The whole process – from detecting to devouring prey – can take less than a quarter of a second.
Like most moles, the star-nosed mole spends most of its time underground, pushing soil aside and enlarging its tunnels with its spade-like feet. All the while, it sweeps its tentacled snout back and forth like a metal detector as it searches for worms and other invertebrates. However, perhaps surprisingly, it is also very much at home underwater. This species inhabits wetlands area in North America, often constructing a burrow with an entrance that leads directly into a nearby stream. It can use this entrance to gain access to the stream to look for prey even after the surface of the water has frozen over in winter.
In the water, the star-nosed mole uses its spade-like feet as paddles and is an excellent swimmer. Like an aquatic bloodhound, it can even smell and 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 find out where prey is hiding. Whether sniffing in the air or water, it seems that very few snouts can match the abilities of the wonderfully weird star-nosed mole.