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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Burrowers of the soft earth

I encountered this small mammal along a trail near the Bodega Dunes Campground today.  Perhaps it was dropped by a predator?  Although it wasn't alive, it was an opportunity to learn about and appreciate this seldom-seen animal.

This is the smallest mole in our area (most are less than 120 mm long).  Because of some similarities to shrews (e.g., its small size and a long, narrow snout), it's commonly called an American Shrew-Mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii).

Note the soft, dense fur and relatively broad front feet (although not as broad as the larger moles you're probably more familiar with). 

The eyes are tiny (rudimentary) and barely visible, but the whiskers are very long.  You can also see short bristles at the very tip of the nose.

The feet have very long, curved claws.  And I was curious about the tubercles (bumps) on the soles of the hind feet, but couldn't find any information about them or how they might be used.

The genus, Neurotrichus, means "no hair on the tail", and refers to the sparsely haired tail, although there's a nice tuft of fur at the tip of the tail.  (This photo is from March 2006.)

American Shrew-Moles occur from British Columbia to Monterey County, so Bodega Bay is near the southern end of their range.  They prefer moist habitats with soft soil and lots of leaf litter.  As you might expect, they burrow, but not as deeply as other species of moles.  Their preferred prey include earthworms, centipedes, snails, and slugs.

I've only seen a few shrew-moles since moving to California.  I still remember the first one, and puzzling over whether it was a shrew or a mole.  I feel lucky whenever I get to see one of these burrowers of the "soft earth."  

(Facts above from the Mammalian Species Account by Carraway and Verts published by The American Society of Mammalogists, 1991)

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