Meet the animal that spends most of its life underground: the mole! We might think of the world below our feet as a dark, forbidding place, but to the moles of Will County it is home. These soil engineers are built to dig, with amazing adaptations that make them perfect for their subterranean environment. And we’re lucky to have them down there.
There are technically two mole species in Illinois. The star-nosed mole sure lives up to its name, with fleshy appendages creating a star on its nose. They are very unique to see, but also very rare. So if you see a mole tunnel in your yard, it was probably dug by the much more common eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus).
Moles have a soil type. It must be crumbly, easy to dig through and easy to push up. They love soil that is soft and moist with lots of humus. Humus is the decomposed plants and leaves plus all the microorganisms found in soil. Right after a rain, moles can dig 18 feet per hour! Try doing that! They hang out in woods, pasture lands, gardens, cemeteries and lawns.
Built to dig
Unlike us, moles are adapted to dig. They have heavy shoulders, short necks and stout heads. They have wide, webbed front feet that act as shovels. They have five toes that end in large, heavy claws.
If you look at a mole, you won’t see eyes or ears. They can hear well, but they don’t want big, floppy ears that will collect dirt. They do have eyeballs, but their eyelids are permanently closed to protect them while digging. Close your eyes. Can you see anything? No. Can you tell if the room is dark or light? Yes. That is about all a mole can sense with their eyes.
Moles have rich, full, soft fur that will go in any direction. Think about the last time you pet a dog. When you stroke it from head to tail, the animal’s fur lays flat. Go the other direction and the fur will stand up like a mohawk haircut. Moles’ fur doesn’t do this, so they can move backward or forward without the soil giving them any resistance.
How to dig
Moles look like they’re swimming underground, doing the breaststroke! But really they are digging away. Their fur-free pink noses seek out the direction they want to go, then they use their front feet as shovels, pushing soil up and away.
A tale of two tunnels
Moles build two types of tunnels: shallow hunting tunnels and a home base network of tunnels. Because moles spend so much of their lives underground, their hunting trails that you see in yards might be the only evidence you have that they even exist nearby.
The main point of a hunting trail is to, you guessed it, hunt. As they dig, they are constantly searching for food; it seems like they are always hungry! They love munching on insect larva like white grubs, millipedes, centipedes and earthworms. They capture their prey against the tunnel wall with their forefeet. If their dinner puts up a fight, moles will just heap dirt on top if it and bite off its head.
Their home base tunnels are much deeper, at 12 feet or more underground. These tunnels are used for raising their young and resting. In winter it’s also where they hunt, because these tunnels are deep enough that the soil doesn’t freeze. They can still find food crawling around.
We love these amazing diggers because they do so much for our soil. Just like one of their favorite foods, the earthworm, they turn the soil over and add air, making it a much healthier environment for plants and critters. Even though you might not see them, keep any eye out for the tunnels of this perfectly adapted mammal!
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