NORTH AMERICA IS HOME TO UNUSUAL ANIMALS

by Whit Gibbons

December 6, 2015

I'm pretty sure one or more of the presidential candidates who are bombarding us with not-so-statesmanlike rhetoric about a long list of topics has mentioned the environment. Surely the word has been uttered by someone taking a stand about climate change, the Keystone Pipeline or offshore drilling. But have you heard any current candidate say that we should be appreciative and protective of our natural environments for their own sake and not just for economic reasons? Where is Teddy Roosevelt when we need him?

Ironically, some of our native animals may owe their continued existence to having minimal economic significance and, therefore, not drawing attention to themselves as something good to be acquired or something bad to be gotten rid of. Countless animal species that most people have never seen or heard of reside in North America. Even more intriguing for some is that even biologists do not know a lot about them; hence, whether they might be engaging or unusual seldom comes up for discussion. For at least two mammals, keeping a low profile may be in their best interest.

Everyone is familiar with the dam-building beaver, our largest rodent. But what do we know about the mountain beaver (Aplodontia rufa) of the western states and British Columbia? Mountain beavers are rodents but belong to a different family from true beavers, and the North American species is the only living member of that family. Some scientists consider them to be the most primitive rodents in the world.

Mountain beavers get a little more than a foot in length and have no obvious tail. They have tiny ears and eyes and look somewhat like dark-brown guinea pigs. Little is known of their ecology except that they live along the edges of waterways, where they make burrows and trails.

A type of flea is found only on mountain beavers and would have no interest in biting a dog or human, for which we should be thankful. The giant mountain beaver flea is the largest flea in the world, reaching more than a quarter of an inch in length.

Mountain beavers live in parts of all three Pacific Coast states, but according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, "Most people don't know mountain beavers exist and some still continue to question [their existence] even after they've heard about the animals." Anonymity may work to the mountain beaver's advantage.

One of our most bizarre mammals is a mole. (All moles are a bit on the weird side considering they spend their lives tunneling through the earth's surface.) We have seven kinds of moles in North America, the most familiar one being the eastern mole that burrows across lawns, golf courses and gardens.

One of the more unusual ones is the star-nosed mole. Its most intriguing feature is a set of 22 long, fleshy tentacles that flare out from the end of the nose. The star-shaped nose approaches a half inch in diameter. The exact function of the tentacles remains in dispute among biologists. The tentacles may be used to find prey by sensing vibrations. Other studies suggest that they pick up electrical stimuli from prey such as earthworms.

Star-nosed moles also differ from those that burrow through soft soil by being expert swimmers. Generally found near streams or lakes, they are seldom apparent. Their general biology is poorly understood, and many ecological mysteries surround these creatures. In fact, even their geographic range may be much greater than shown in mammal field guides because they do not enter standard mammal traps and may, therefore, go undetected by most mammalogists.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "While my interest in natural history has added very little to my sum of achievement, it has added immeasurably to my sum of enjoyment in life." I would dearly love to hear one of the current presidential candidates say they think it is important to protect and preserve our natural heritage, from the bizarre to the mundane.

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