What Animal Is It?

A Pyrenean desman
Image Source: David Perez (DPC)

Today’s What Animal Is It? is a creature that few people have heard of, and even fewer have seen. In my opinion, it’s one of the strangest animals in Europe and the last in an evolutionary line that, long ago, was fairly common and widespread. But what exactly is it? The fact that The Nature Nook has turned January into ‘Mole Month’ should give you a clue as to what this animal might be…

Yes, it may look like a shrew or some kind of rodent, but it’s actually a close relative of the mole called the desman. Like other moles, it has poor vision, but it also has some strange features not normally seen in moles, including a long, scaly tail and an elongated, almost trunk-like snout. Although it constructs burrows in the banks of ponds and streams, its feet are not as adapted for digging as most other moles. This is because its front paws are partially webbed, while its much larger hind paws are fully webbed.

The desman is, however, an excellent swimmer. It dives underwater like a huge water shrew, propelled by its webbed hindfeet and broad tail, which moves from side to side like that of a fish. Its ears have a valve that can be closed at will and it uses its long, sensitive, mobile nose not only to probe for aquatic insects, crayfish and small amphibians among the stones of the riverbed, but also as a snorkel, turning it up so that it projects above the surface of the water as its owner swims around.

There are two species of this strange, semi-aquatic mole in the world. The Pyrenean desman (pictured at the top of the article) from Spain and Portugal is the smaller of the two and has a cylindrical tail. The Russian desman, which lives in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, has a more laterally-flattened tail and weighs up to 500 grams, making it easily the largest species of mole in the world.

This is a stuffed specimen of a Russian desman. It looks part-rat, part-mole, part-platypus. Its tail functions as both a propeller and rudder. When dried, these musk-scented tails were once used as sachets for linens to deter moths.
Image Source: Didier Descouens

The Russian desman was long hunted for its soft, durable pelts, while the musk oil produced by glands at the base of its tail to help keep its dense fur waterproof was used in perfumes and colognes. By the 1920s, desmans had declined to such an extent that the Russian government prohibited hunting them.

But even today, threats remain. Thanks to increased water pollution, the accidental killing of desmans in fishing nets, and loss of habitat due to the development and drainage of floodplains, the number of Russian desmans is still declining in most areas. Competition with, and predation by, non-native species that escaped from fur farms has also had a severe impact. The stronger and more aggressive muskrats, for example, are quite capable of pushing desmans from their dens, while American mink can easily kill them outright.

If you want to find out about another water-loving mole, be sure to check out our article on the bizarre-looking star-nosed mole. Also, keep an eye out for our final ‘Mole Month’ post here at The Nature Nook, coming next week. But be warned – these next ‘moles’ might not be what they seem…

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