Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

I have always loved cats, and have been particularly fascinated by big cats. It’s hard to pick which of the big cats is my favourite — one day it will be cheetahs, another jaguars, and so on. I think I should stop trying to pick a favourite and just admit that I love them all. That certainly goes for today’s animal, the beautiful and reclusive snow leopard.

A note before I begin: the term ‘big cat’ is used a lot, and means different things. It is often used to refer to the cat species that can roar, which are tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards (which, along with the snow leopard, make up the genus Panthera). Some people include other species in the definition, such as snow leopards, pumas, clouded leopards, and cheetahs. That’s how I use the term, so now you won’t be confused.

Snow leopards don’t usually come into contact with people, partly because they live in one of the most forbidding habitats on Earth. They are found in Central Asia, in high altitude mountain ranges. This of course includes the Himalayas, but also extends into Bhutan, Nepal, and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia. They prefer areas with steep and rocky terrain. Snow leopards are usually found between altitudes of 3,000 and 4,500 meters, but can move to lower altitudes to follow their prey during the winter.

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A map of the range of the snow leopard. Image source: Wikipedia

Snow leopards are certainly big, but they are not as quite as large as the other Panthera cats. They range in size from 75 to 150 cm in length, and weigh between 27 and 55 kg. Snow leopards have grey or creamy-yellow coats, that are covered in black spots and rosettes. They have beautiful blue-green or aqua eyes.

Mountains are cold, especially really, really high ones. So snow leopards have find a way to stay warm. Snow leopards have stocky bodies, thick fur, and small, rounded ears, all of which help prevent heat loss (ears are an excellent way to lose heat, which is why desert animals have such big ones). Their tails are used to store fat, and have extra-thick fur on them. When the cats get cold, they can wrap their tails around themselves like a blanket and stay warm.

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Snow leopards blend into their habitats extremely well. Image credit: Tashi Lonchay via Wikipedia

Cold isn’t the only treacherous aspect of alpine habitats. The mountains that snow leopards live in are steep, rocky, and often covered in deep snow. The air is cold and thin and difficult to breathe. Snow leopards have a number of ways of meeting these challenges. Their tails are long, reaching 80 to 100 cm in length, which is the longest relative to body size of any cat except the marbled cat and the domestic cat. These super long tails help the leopards balance on the rocky slopes. They also have wide paws, which help them walk on snow. Their back legs are long, which helps them jump and move with agility across rough terrain. Snow leopards posses large nasal cavities, to help them breathe in mountain air.

Snow leopards are pretty much hermits, living in the mountains and avoiding contact with others. They are solitary and secretive animals, coming together only to mate. This occurs in winter, from January to March. Female snow leopards announce their readiness to mate by yowling loudly to the mountains. If a male shows up, females further entice him by walking in front of him with their tails raised. If all goes well, mating ensues.

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Look how cute these little guys are!!!! Image credit: Dingopup via Wikipedia

After a gestation of 90 to 100 days, female snow leopards give birth to one to five cubs (usually two or three) in April and June. The cubs are born in a cave or crevice, with shed fur from their mom lining the den. The cubs are able to walk at five weeks of age, and are weaned at ten weeks. They stay with their mothers long after this, however, and are entirely dependent on her for food, protection, and learning for the first year of their lives.

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My drawing of a snow leopard, done in pencil crayon and a brush and ink.  

Unfortunately snow leopards are quite rare, and are currently listed as endangered. Thanks to habitat loss, prey loss, and poaching, snow leopards numbers have been in decline. Another threat to snow leopards is climate change, which over time will increase the temperature in snow leopard habitats, meaning the tree line will move up, and increase competition for snow leopards. We have a lot of trouble keeping track of snow leopard numbers, however. They are hard to count, since most of the time we can’t even find them in the mountains, as they blend in really well, are well-known for being shy. There are many conservation efforts in place to protect snow leopards, so with luck we will be able to keep these amazing cats from going extinct.

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Pangolin (family Manidae)

I find it quite shocking that I have not written about pangolins yet. These guys are some of my all-time favourite mammals, and yet I’ve ignored them for nearly four years of blogging and over four hundred posts. I know I’ve considered writing about them, but perhaps the time was never quite right. Well, today is the big day for pangolins, because these amazing animals are going to get their very own blog post!

There are eight species of pangolins, all of which belong to the family Manidae. Pangolins can be found in Africa, India and southeast Asia. All species live in tropical areas, though they differe in their lifestyle choices, with some being arboreal and some preferring to live on the ground. Most pangolins are nocturnal, with only one species, the long-tailed pangolin, being active during the daytime.

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A map showing the distribution of pangolins in Africa and Asia. Image credit: Craig Pemberton via Wikipedia

Pangolins vary in size depending on the species, ranging from 30 to 100 cm long. The most notable feature of pangolins is their overlapping scales that look extremely out of place on a mammal. These scales are made of keratin, and harden as the animal matures. They may look funny, but the scales provide pangolins with an excellent mode of defence. When a pangolin feels threatened, it curls up into a ball, tucking its head under its tail, leaving the predator with only a hard, spiky ball to look at.

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This pangolin seems to have stumped these lions with his ‘curl-in-a-ball’ defence. Image credit: Sandip Kumar via Wikipedia

Pangolins are at home in a number of different environments. They happily climb trees, with some species of arboreal pangolin having prehensile tails that they can use while climbing. Ground dwelling pangolins dig burrows, which can reach depths of three and a half meters. Some species of pangolins will walk with their front claws folded under their feet, and others will sometimes rear up and perform some behaviours bi-pedally, even walking on two legs for small periods. But climbing, digging and walking aren’t the only things pangolins can do; they can also swim quite well. That’s pretty impressive for such awkward looking animals.

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A Sunda pangolin showing off its climbing skills. Image credit: Piekfrosch via Wikipedia

So what do these strange and wonderful animals eat? Pangolins like to feast on tasty and nutritious insects. They use their strong claws to dig up bug nests in trees and on the ground, and then stick out their tongues to gobble them up. Pangolins have incredibly long tongues, which are coated in saliva from glands in the animals’ chests, making them extra sticky, and thus the perfect insect grabbers. Though insects are tasty, they are small, so pangolins have to eat a lot of them. They eat between 140 to 200 g of food a day, and are quite picky, generally eating only one or two species of insect.

Another weird thing about pangolins: they don’t have teeth. They get around this by having a very muscular chamber in their stomachs, complete with spikes that help grind up food. Pangolins will also swallow stones or pebbles that assist in grinding up any food they eat.

Pangolins live solitary lives, coming together only to reproduce. There is no set mating seasons, and pangolins usually mate once a year. Pangolins are a little backwards when it comes to mating — instead of males heading out to find mates, females are lured to spots marked by male pangolin urine or dung. There is some competition over females; when this occurs male pangolins establish dominance by swinging their tails at one another.

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A little baby pangolin riding on its mama’s tail. Image source

Gestation in pangolins ranges from 70 to 140 days. Litter size depends on the species, and can be one to three baby pangolins. When they are born, the scales of young pangolins are soft (imagine giving birth to a baby armoured with spiky scales!), and these harden after several days. While the scales are still soft, mother pangolins are very protective of their young, wrapping themselves around their babies if they feel threatened. After a few weeks the young pangolins ride around on their mother’s tails, and they are weaned at around three months of age. They become sexually mature at two years of age.

There is, of course, a sad side to the pangolin story. They are hunted for their meat and their scales, as pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in many areas, and their scales are thought to have medicinal qualities. Pangolins have the upsetting title of being the Most Illegally Trafficked Animal in the world. All pangolin species are currently threatened, and two are listed as critically endangered. Though they are protected species, illegal trafficking remains a serious threat to the pangolin population. On that sad note, I’ll leave you with a cute drawing of a baby pangolin.

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A quick little sketch I made of a pangolin. So many scales to draw! 

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Giraffe (genus Giraffa)

It is always surprising to me when I find a very well-known animal that I haven’t blogged about. I suppose I do try to find weird and wonderful animals to write about, so it makes sense that I would skip over some obvious ones. Still, I think it’s a bit of a crime that I haven’t written about giraffes yet.

While it used to be thought that there was only one species of giraffe, recent studies have shown that there are actually four to six distinct species of giraffe. All species can be found in Africa, in scattered pockets from Chad to South Africa, and from Niger to Somalia. Giraffes live in savannah, grasslands or open woodlands, and are particularly fond of anywhere where Acacia trees grow.

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The range of the species of giraffe. Image credit: Narayanese via Wikipedia

Giraffes have both the title of World’s Tallest Mammal and Largest Ruminant. Male giraffes can reach heights of 5.7 meters to their horns, and can weigh almost 2,000 kg. Females are smaller, with the largest female recorded at 5.17 meters, and the largest weight recorded at 1,180 kg. Giraffes are famous for their fun, spotted coats. These coats help giraffes camouflage, and vary depending on where the giraffe lives.

One of the coolest things about giraffes is their prehensile tongues. These are around 45 cm long, and are black. It is thought that giraffe tongues are coloured in this way to prevent the tongue from being sunburnt while the giraffe is feeding. Giraffes feed on trees, shrubs, fruit and grass, preferring the thorny trees in the subfamily Acacieae. Their lips, tongues, and inside of their mouths have thick papillae to protect against the thorny food they eat. Giraffe necks allow these animals to feed at a greater height than their competitors, as they can feed at heights of 4.5m, while their largest competitors can only reach 2m in height.

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Giraffe horns are used in competition between males, but they may also play a role in thermoregulation, as they are vascularized. Image credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia

While the giraffe’s long neck lets it eat leaves and branches in high places, this has its disadvantages. Giraffe necks can reach lengths of up to two and a half meters, and result from elongated vertebrae, not extra vertebrae. These long necks mean that giraffes have to bend down quite a ways to get water — in fact, giraffes can only drink if they splay their front legs or bend their knees. If you think you get dizzy after bending down and standing up suddenly, just imagine how giraffes feel.

Actually, giraffes have a way of dealing with this problem. They have a special area of closely packed veins and arteries in their necks, known as a rete mirabile. This prevents too much blood from flowing into the brain when they lower their heads, and when the giraffe stands back up, the vessels constrict and send blood to the brain, preventing fainting. Giraffes’ hearts have to do a lot more work than other mammals’ — to keep a steady blood flow to the brain a giraffe’s heart has to create double the blood pressure that a human heart would need to. Because of this, giraffes’ hearts are very large, weighing 11 kg and having walls as much as 7.5 cm thick.

Giraffes live in groups, though these are somewhat loose, with individuals leaving and rejoining the group. Females are more social than males, and males will engage in ‘necking’ to establish dominance. There are two forms of necking, low and high intensity. In the first instance, male giraffes simply lean against one another, rubbing their necks against one another to see who gives way first. In high intensity necking, the giraffes activity swing their necks at one another, trying to hit each other with their horns. These fights can last over half an hour, and though injuries do not usually occur, the blows can break jaws, necks and cause death.

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After a round of ‘necking’, male giraffes can get awfully fond of one another, caressing and mounting one another. These instances have been found to be more frequent than heterosexual mating. Image source: Luca Galuzzi

Mating in giraffe happens during the rainy season. A bull male will approach a female in estrus, rubbing his head on her hindquarters and resting it on her back. He will then lick her tail and raise a foreleg to ask if she is ready for copulation. If she is, she will circle her suitor and then raise her tail, at which point the male will mount the female.

Females give birth to a single calf (twins occur rarely) after a 450 day gestation. Being born must be an unpleasant experience for any creature, but it’s particularly rough for giraffe calves: females give birth standing up, so the calves drop two meters to ground after leaving the womb. Calves are weaned after twelve to sixteen months; females reach sexual maturity at three or four years of age, while males are mature at four to five years, though they only start to breed at seven years of age.

For a long time giraffes have been thought to have had a relatively stable population. However, in 2016 their status was changed from Least Concern to Vulnerable, thanks to habitat destruction and hunting. Giraffes are protected throughout most of their range, so hopefully we can stop these funny guys from becoming endangered.

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A quick sketch of a giraffe I did. Isn’t he cute? 

Cover image credit: Fir002 via Wikipedia

Yak (Bos mutus)

Two weekends ago I was working at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and every morning I walked to our booth I went past the cow ring where there were always lots of adorable cows being shown. So when I had to find a mammal to write about for today, cows immediately came to mind. Of course, this blog is called Our Wild World, so I had to choose a wild relative of the cow. And what bovine is more silly and adorable than the yak?

There are domesticated yaks, but I will mainly be talking about the wild population in this post. Wild yaks live in a very restricted area, on the Tibetan Plateau. This of course includes the Tibet region and parts of China proper. Yaks used to be found in Nepal and Bhutan, but are now extinct in those countries. Wild yaks like cold areas, but need enough vegetation to sustain themselves. They are most commonly found at 3,000 to 5,500 meters, in treeless areas where there are grasses and sedges.

Yaks are large animals, and are the second largest bovid on the planet. They grow to be 1.6 to 2.2 meters at the shoulder, and can weigh as much as 1,000 kg. Female yaks are much smaller than males, and domesticated yaks are smaller than wild ones, with domesticated males only reaching weights of 580 kg. Both sexes have horns, though the horns of males are larger and can reach lengths of almost a meter. Yak fur is long and shaggy, and is usually dark brown or black.

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Look how handsome he is. Image source

Due to the extremely high altitudes yaks inhabit, these animals have a number of special adaptations. They have a very thick undercoat that is kept matted by a sticky substance secreted in their sweat; this helps with insulation. They also have a very thick layer of fat under their skin, to help protect against the cold.

Yaks have larger hearts and lungs than cattle that live at lower elevations, and higher concentrations of haemoglobin in their blood than other cattle. This allows yaks to breathe and function at the high altitudes in which they live. Yaks also have larger rumens than domestic cattle, which helps extract the most possible nutrition out of yaks’ low quality diet. While domestic cows have to eat 3% of their body weight daily, yaks only need to eat 1% for maintenance. Because of their extensive adaptations to the climate they live in, yaks do not do well at lower elevations, or in warm weather. They can suffer from heat exhaustion above temperatures of 15 degrees celsius.

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A herd of wild yaks mixed with domesticated ones. Image source

Yaks are herd animals, though for most of the year males and females live separately. Females live in large herds of up to 200 animals, while males form much smaller bachelor herds of around six animals. Mating season occurs between July and September. At this time the males rut, fighting one another for dominance. Displays during this time include bellowing, scraping their horns along the ground, as well as charging at one another.

Calves are born from May to June after a gestation of between 257 and 270 days. Calves can walk almost immediately after birth, and are weaned at a year of age. Yaks generally give birth every other year, and reach sexual maturity around three or four years of age.

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A drawing I did of a yak in charcoal – I haven’t sprayed it yet so I had to take a pretty poor picture with my phone instead of scanning it. 

Though wild yaks are not yet endangered, they are a vulnerable species and are threatened by a number of human activities. Hunting is one of the biggest problems facing wild yak, as people hunt them for food. Domestic yaks can also be a problem, because of transmission of diseases and competition for grazing. Hopefully we can protect these silly but majestic animals and keep them around in the wild for a long time to come!

Tarsier (family Tarsiidae)

In general, the bigger an animal’s eyes are, the cuter they are. Just think of kittens, who have huge eyes and are freaking adorable. But there are certainly exceptions to this rule, and tarsiers are one of them. Their eyes are so big that these guys just look creepy.

Tarsiers are primates, and make up the family Tarsiidae. The exact number of tarsier species is up for debate, as well as what genera they are placed in. All extant species can be found in southeast Asia, in places such as Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and the Philippines, though tarsier fossil records have been found in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

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A Philippine tarsier. Image credit: Jasper Greek Golangco via Wikipedia 

Tarsiers are built for living in trees, and all species are arboreal. They like very dense, tropical forests, though different species can be found at different altitudes. Tarsiers roost in hollow trees or clusters of vines, so availability of roost sites is important for tarsier habitats.

Tarsiers are very small primates, with their bodies only being ten to fifteen centimetres long. Tarsiers have soft, floofy fur, which is dark brown or greyish, to blend in with dead leaves or bark. They have very long hind legs, which can be twice as long as the body. These are specialized for clinging and leaping among the trees.

The length of tarsiers’ hind legs is due to the elongation of the tarsal bones in their feet, hence the name ‘tarsier’. In most animals with long hind legs, this lengthening is due to an elongation of the metatarsals, not the tarsals. Tarsiers are unique in this respect, and the elongation of the tarsals means that they can have long limbs without losing any dexterity in their toes.

Of course, the most notable feature of tarsiers is their absolutely ridiculously huge eyes. They are each about 16 mm in diameter, and each weighs almost as much as a tarsiers brain. These giant eyes help tarsiers track their prey at night, though they also have extremely acute hearing which helps them detect any tasty meals that flutter by.

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Look how freaking creepy their eyes are! Image credit: mtoz via Wikipeida

You see, tarsiers have a very odd diet — in fact, they are the only truly carnivorous primates. They feed mainly on insects, including moths, butterflies, ants and beetles. Tarsiers will also feed on larger prey, such as birds, snakes and lizards.

Tarsiers give birth to one offspring, after a gestation of around six months. The young are large, weighing 25 to 30% of their mothers’ body weights – the largest birth weight relative to maternal mass of any mammal. They can climb the day they are born, and reach sexual maturity within two years. Though some tarsier species are solitary, others live and roost in family groups.

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Okay, baby tarsiers are kind of cute. Image source

Tarsiers rely very heavily on the habitats that house them; as such they are very vulnerable to habitat destruction. The key to protecting this very unique family of animals is to protect the forests they live in. Hopefully we can preserve the forests and preserve these super cool (if very ugly) primates!

Mole (family Talpidae)

Due to a long flight, lack of sleep, and an re-injured cracked rib, I could not write a post today. So we have the pleasure of having a guest post, enjoy!

This blog is full of surprising and fun facts about the common mole. For example, I thought the scientific name for moles was Molus fukkus lawnia, but in fact moles belong to the family Talidae. But there’s more.

Moles are common, everyday creatures, but they are clothed in mystery, because who has ever actually seen one? No one, other than top researchers, because they live under the ground. How cool is that?

There are no fewer than seven North American species of moles. For those attending a trivia night in the near future, they are the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), hairy-tailed mole (Parascalops breweri), star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata), broad-footed mole (Scapanus latimanus), Townsend’s mole (Scapanus townsendii), coast mole (Scapanus orarius) and shrew mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii).

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An eastern mole, looking very mole-like. Image credit: Kenneth Catania via Wikipedia

Moles are not rodents, and presumably would be insulted if you said otherwise. They are in fact related to shrews and bats, and should not be confused with meadow mice (voles), shrews or gophers.

Here are some mole facts.  They have a pointed snout, tiny eyes and no visible ears.  Furry, rotund and almost always out of sight, European moles are about 14 to 20 centimeters long, including a 2 to 4 cm tail, and weigh between 70 and 130 grams. Naturally, North American moles are slightly larger – everything is bigger in North America. Males are larger than females.

Moles are built to dig, and their most distinctive characteristics relate to their adaptation to an underground existence. For example, a unique hemoglobin protein allows moles to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide than other mammals, and their ability to reuse oxygen inhaled above ground allows them to survive in their low-oxygen underground burrows.

But you’ve have to be a bloodologist to know that – much more evident are the enormous forefeet of the mole, which are broad and have palms wider than they are long. Moles’ toes are webbed and their wide claws are made for digging. In contrast, their hind feet are small and narrow, with smaller, sharp claws.

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A mole paw, specially designed for digging. Image credit: Didier Decouens via Wikipedia

Not surprisingly, moles are blind or nearly blind, but are compensated by having a highly developed sense of smell. “Highly developed” may not do the mole justice – moles smell in stereo, so moles can detect where a particular odor is coming from, because each nostril will register a slightly different scent. This allows them to find their prey, which consists of earthworms, grubs and all the other tasty treats under your lawn. This sounds innocuous, but moles are actually voracious predators that eat close to their weight every day. Moles come by their insatiable appetites honestly – digging constantly takes a great deal of energy and, just as birds eat constantly so they can fly, moles eat constantly so they can dig. The main difference is that moles have not inspired us to build digging machines so we can soar under the ground.

No discussion of the moles’ eating habits would be complete without mentioning that moles use their saliva, which contains a toxin, to paralyze earthworms so they can be taken back to the mole’s den to be killed and eaten (not necessarily in that order) later on. Researchers have found mole larders that have contained more than a thousand earthworms. Nature red in tooth and claw…

A graphic description of the sex life of the topic animal is required for this blog, but moles are a disappointment in this area. Moles breed once a year, with the boar searching for sows by means of emitting high-pitched squeals while they tunnel through new areas, outside their normal range. Once this goal is successfully accomplished and copulation takes place in a darkened area, gestation is a month or so and 2 to 5 pups emerge into the world.  In another month or two, the pups are old enough to leave the nest and find their own territories.

The social life of the mole is perhaps more interesting than its love life. In addition to being hardened killers at meal times, which means almost all the time, moles are the disturbed loners of the mammal world. You might picture thriving rabbit-like warrens full of moles, happily competing in digging races, but in fact moles are solitary creatures who enjoy the company of others only if they can eat them.

Each individual mole has a territory, which it may fight to the death to defend, and because of their massive appetites, it is unusual to find more than two or three moles per acre. The infestation of mole hills in your neighbour’s perfect lawn doesn’t reflect an infestation of moles – they almost certainly were all made by the same, single, mole. However, some scientists speculate that moles may not be quite as anti-social as generally believed, and that several moles may use the same tunnels which act as a type of highway.

But the common picture of vast mole civilizations based on one gigantic underground economy is false. It’s true that moles never pay any taxes, but it isn’t their underground economy that’s responsible – it’s the solitary nature of moles. There are no mole civilizations. Moles find food, eat, find more food, eat some more, and now and then mate to produce more moles, and that’s about it – except for the tunnels.

Moles create dens, which might be thought of as their home base. These are at 12 to 20 cm or more below the surface of the ground. Moles dig tunnels, known as runways, from their dens. These deeper tunnels radiate in all directions, and are more or less permanent. Shallower, temporary “feeding tunnels” reflect the moles’ quest for food – in wet weather, the ridges from these tunnels can be seen; in dry weather, they are 3 or 4 cm below the surface, as the earthworms moles love prefer moist soil.

While moles create their dens in dry spots, their preferred hunting ground is moist, damp soil with high populations of worms and other delectables. Hence the mole’s affinity for parks and lawns – they aren’t just trying to annoy us. But wet forests are just as good from the mole’s point of view.

Yet another myth about moles should be dispelled – it is not true that Darwin’s last scientific book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (“Worms”) was originally to be about moles, but was changed at the last minute at the insistence of his publisher. Moles do not improve the soil in the same manner as earthworms – at most they keep the population of earthworms in check by eating them.

To sum up, moles seem to be nasty, annoying little bastards that have few redeeming qualities. Except one – they are so well adapted to their environment that once again we have to stand back and marvel at the wonder of it all. And moles are not endangered – check your lawn if you have any doubts.