The star-nosed mole: a strange creature that will surprise you

Thirty years of research have revealed just how strange this underground animal with a strange nose really is.

A star-nosed mole is surely one of the strangest looking animals in the world. If you came face to face with one, you might think its head has been replaced by a small octopus.

And for an almost crazy animal, the American species is surprisingly fast: it is the fastest eater in the world, it can find and devour an insect or worm in a quarter of a second.

As the small, furry carniʋore plows through soggy soils, it loses its head in constant movement. In the dark underworld of the mole, sight is useless; instead, he senses a pulsating world of prey. The mole hunts by flying by throwing its star against the ground as quickly as possible; can touch 10 or 12 different places in a single second.

It seems random, but it’s not. With each touch, 100,000 nerve triggers send information to the mole’s brain. That’s five times more touch sensors than in the human hand, all packed into a nose smaller than a fingertip.

And it is one of two animals in the world known to smell underwater, releasing air in the form of a flow and sucking it into its nose.

“If I use the word ‘amazing’ a lot, it’s because I really feel that way about them,” he says. In fact, he used the word 10 times to describe them.

On Thursday, Catania will present three decades of research at the annual Experimental Biology meeting in Chicago, part of a symposium on the world’s most extreme anatomy.

Keep in touch

As the world’s leading expert on the star-nosed mole, Catania is itself something of a rarity.

Most Ƅiologists study a handful of species, and some even disapprove of students choosing a “pet.” But Catania champions the study of the world’s weirdos, creatures whose enhanced abilities reveal something about how the rest of us work.

“Evolution has solved many problems in many different ways,” he says. “We can learn a lot from that diversity.”

For example, studying touch in the mole’s sensitive nose has revealed clues about how touch works at the molecular level.

Catania has discovered that a giant star pattern that mirrors the mole’s strange nose is imprinted directly into the brain’s anatomy. Each time the mole presses its star to the ground, it essentially creates a star-shaped view of its surroundings, and these images come together in its brain like puzzle pieces.

Relieve our pain?

Working with Catania, Bautista discovered molecules in the mole star that help convert a physical force (whether the brush of a feather or the prick of a needle) into electrical signals that are the currency of the nervous system.

Since many of these molecules are also found in people, that understanding could lead to new treatments for pain.

More mole mysteries

Catania has many mysteries that you would still like to solve: can you feel detailed textures with a single touch of its rays?

Working with Catania, Bautista discovered molecules in the mole star that help convert a physical force (whether the brush of a feather or the prick of a needle) into electrical signals that are the currency of the nervous system.

Since many of these molecules are also found in people, that understanding could lead to new treatments for pain.

More mole mysteries

Catania has many mysteries that you would still like to solve: can you feel detailed textures with a single touch of its rays?

All of these questions require a scientist dedicated to the strange and not afraid to get wet.

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