Biologists looking for sightings of Arkansas’s least ‘watchable’ wildlife species
LITTLE ROCK — If you look on iNaturalist, you’ll find all sorts of surveys where people can record sightings of their favorite wildlife species to help with projects conducted by researchers and biologists around the world. One such study, Moles of Arkansas, may require a little more digging, as it is asking participants to record sightings of eastern moles in The Natural State. But what’s a “Wanted” sign worth if it doesn’t tell you a little background about the critter you’re searching for? Once you learn a little about these subterranean cousins of the hedgehog, you might discover they’re worthy of some added interest.
First off, moles are not related to gophers, so cast aside those thoughts about Carl from “Caddyshack” being part of the survey. This is a citizen-science project being conducted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Nongame Mammal Program coordinator, Blake Sasse, and a student from the University of Central Arkansas. And the purpose of the survey is to get more information about all of the places the species occurs in the state. Eastern moles, the only species found in Arkansas, ranges across the eastern U.S. all the way to portions of Wyoming and can be found from parts of southern Canada to portions of northern Mexico.
Adults are typically about 5 to 7 inches long and covered with a soft, fuzzy fur resembling felt or the trademarked “moleskin” often used in footwear to prevent blisters. A nubby, naked tail juts out about a half-inch to an inch from its rear, and its oversized, pink front paws dominate the front of its body. The head lacks any obvious ears that could catch dirt, and even the eyes are overshot with a covering of fur. The eyelids are fused, and an extra membrane over the corneas protects from falling dirt and debris while the animal does the hard job of burrowing.
Most of the tunneling people notice from moles aren’t for their main burrows, but from their near-constant search for their favorite meal: earthworms and insect larvae hidden in the soil. The average mole can dig between 10 to 20 feet of tunnel in an hour, using its massive front paws. Deeper burrows, sometimes a foot and a half under the surface, are used for escape routes, rearing of young and foraging when the surface is either too dry or cold to harbor the worms and grubs that tempt the animal’s taste buds.
The tunnels themselves can act as a bit of a worm trap, and the mole’s keen sense of feel can sense when an earthworm falls into the tunnel, having burrowed above. Instead of simply eating every worm as it appears, the mole will store its food in an underground “larder” for later. The animal’s saliva has a special toxin that will paralyze the worm but keep it alive so that it stays fresh for later consumption. Some researchers have found underground caches of moles containing more than 1,000 earthworms inside. Because worms are full of dirt and other substances, the mole has an ingenious habit of squeezing the worm through its paws before eating it, pushing the dirt out before it gets to the animal’s mouth.
Unfortunately, the only time most people even notice these interesting animals is when they’ve made themselves unwelcome guests on golf courses, under landscaped lawns or near homes where they are getting close to a house foundation. Their surface burrows often damage root systems of grasses and push up the dirt, crisscrossing people’s yards with streaks of dead grass or bare soil. They also tend to push small mounds of dirt out from underneath the surface to add ventilation for their deeper nesting and breeding burrows. It’s often only the surface tunnels and mounds that even clue landowners in on the mole’s presence, but when they show up, many people don’t appreciate their handiwork.
Sasse recommends the number one thing NOT to do is try poisons, toxins or chemical repellents.
“Not only are they usually ineffective, they’re illegal to use in Arkansas,” Sasse said. “All sorts of other animals you’re not targeting can ingest the toxins.”
Even if toxins were effective, they would still pose the same sort of danger as using rat poisons for house vermin. The poison still exists in the carcass of the animal, which could then be consumed by a scavenger or predator, such as an owl, bobcat or domestic animal, causing it to become sick or die as well.
Pinwheels, sonic emitters and other sorts of “mole chasers” also tend to fail in their jobs of driving away moles for the long term. They may cause a temporary change in the mole’s behavior, but the animals soon become used to the constant disturbance and ignore the nuisance.
Trapping is the best, and really only truly effective, method to control a determined digger. A few different models of traps will snap down on a mole when placed in an active surface tunnel, dispatching it quickly and humanely. For people who don’t want to kill the critter, digging a space into the tunnel and placing a small live trap will work; just be sure to cover the opening you created with a board to block the sunlight so the mole will continue to use the tunnel. One method to catch moles is to dig a hole in the floor of the tunnel large enough to place a large pickle jar or large coffee can in the space with the ground flush to the edge of the opening. Again, cover the top of the tunnel with a board to block light from entering. Ideally the mole will travel down the tunnel, fall into the opening and be unable to dig its way out. Its powerful paws aren’t much use for climbing or jumping, so the mole will remain in the jar until you come to retrieve it and relocate it to a more suitable location for excavation.
Even if the mole has been trapped, adding a listing to the iNaturalist survey can be helpful for the research project.
“The UCA student will start looking at mole distribution this fall and she will probably be using this data as part of her work,” Sasse said. “We may use other methods to obtain mole records from the general public, but it’s still early on.”
Visit iNaturalist.com to learn more about contributing to citizen science projects like the Moles of Arkansas Survey.
Arkansas Wildlife Weekly Waterfowl Report
Dec. 6, 2023
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