Wildlife focus: the mole

Hello nature fans!

I’m starting a new blog series all about wildlife, focusing on a particular species each time in depth. In general, I’ll probably talk about the features of the species, the role it fulfills within its ecosystem, the folklore surrounding it, and species idiosyncrasies, including a few interesting facts. I’m starting with the humble mole.

The Mole

A nocturnal creature that is practically blind, it moves awkwardly above ground and expertly tunnels below. This mammal digs and tunnels its way through the soil, leaving those familiar molehills dotted about the landscape. They have sharp claws, soft velvety fur and eat earthworms and, surprisingly, nuts.

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How to spot a mole

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust gives this helpful advice on how to identify moles:

The European mole is a small mammal with a body length of between 10-14cm, weighing between 75-120g. They have a cylindrical body covered with dense black fur, a pointed snout, short tail and spade like forelegs with long sharp claws which they use for digging tunnels.

If you manage to get really close to a mole you might be able to notice that they have an extra thumb on their forepaws, a feature that evolution has decided is helpful for moles, meaning that they basically have two thumbs. You can find moles all over the UK and they seem to be doing fine, despite some gardeners and landowners viewing them as pests.

Diet

Moles primarily eat earthworms, which they collect underground in specially built ‘mole runs’ that are essentially a series of tunnels – the mole can sense when a worm falls into the channel and quickly locates and eats it. They can even store earthworms in their larders to eat later as their saliva contains a toxin that paralyses the worm.

Breeding

Moles breed between February and May. Males woo females by wandering into unknown territory and letting off high-pitched squeals. If a match is successful, the young are born between March and April and each brood generally contains 3-5 youngsters, who depart the nest after about 6 weeks.

Random Facts

  1. Moles can dig 20 yards of tunnels each day.
  2. A mole can dig through 14m in 1 hour
  3. Males are called ‘boars’, females ‘sows’, and a group of moles is a ‘labour’.
  4. They have a complex mental map of their undergound tunnels.
  5. The texture of fur allows it to lie in any direction so it can easily reverse in a tunnel.
  6. They have no external ears.

The Burrow by Kafka

Franz Kafka wrote an exceptional story about a mole. It was unfinished and published posthumously, like most of his work, and it’s the most strikingly strange idea: essentially a monologue by a mole, who adores his carefully constructed underground palace of tunnels and feels an ever-growing threat of ‘the beast’ who could shatter it at any moment. Read into that what you will. Human irrationality and anxiety of an inevitable yet unidentifiable destroyer (i.e. death)? If you’re interested, you can buy it here.

Here are a few photos of a mole I managed to take at Strumpshaw in Norfolk in the summer. I just happened to see one above ground – a very rare treat. 

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5 interesting new species we discovered in 2016

It’s not all doom and gloom and the Sixth Mass Extinction – scientists have been discovering new species as well as pronouncing their imminent demist. As our knowledge and technology improves, researchers are able to access more and more remote areas and discover interesting species that are completely new to science – before it is too late. Here’s a round up of my favourites.

  • The Ziggy Stardust Snake – for good reason this is my favourite new species, and for good reason they named it after the late great Bowie’s alter personality Ziggy, with it’s striking iridescent rainbow head.

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  • The Seadragon – OK, so I seem to be making a list of species with the coolest names. A relative of the seahorse, it has a long narrow body, with dorsal and pectoral fins.

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  • Harry Potter Sorting Hat Spider – again, the cool name theme. It was discovered in a mountainous region of south-west India and it mimics foliage to hide from predators

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  • Four-penised milipede – such a thing exists. 414 legs, 200 poison glands, 4 penises, and no eyes. So it goes.

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  •  Klingon newt – one of 163 new species, along with the Ziggy snake, that were discovered in 2015 along the Mekong delta, a hugely ecologically diverse.

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On The Importance Of Insects

Insects are the most common of all animals on the planet, totally around 1.5 million types of insects – that’s three times more than any other animal population combined!

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They are especially important to all ecosystems because they serve two functions: to pollinate and to clean. Many of the foods we rely on are pollinated by insects, and insects also provide an efficient service in cleaning up decaying matter and decomposing animals.

Insects are also eaten by many species, including reptiles, amphibians, other insects, mammals and, of course, birds, so they are a substantial foundation in the food web that most species simply could not do without.

Since the 1950s, however, insect populations have been declining, and conservationists are particularly concerned about the falling numbers of bees, moths, and butterflies. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust suggests that this decline in bee populations is due to a combination of factors but mostly we look to the loss of wildflowers in the countryside and new agricultural techniques. They estimate that we have lost around 97% of flower-grassland since the 1930s, resulting in the extinction in the UK of two species of bees – so far. They also suggest that:

Through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy and €14.2 billion per annum to the EU economy.

A very important insect, then. But it’s not just bees that contribute to the UK economy; ladybirds, for example, eat aphids, which feed on farmers’ crops.

But those are the cute, fluffy, colourful bugs – what about the ugly bugs? Cockroaches are probably universally despised, yet the 5,000+ known species that do not inhabit urban areas provide a significant ecological service in forests by cleaning up indigestible leaf matter, and by being a food source to desert lizards and some endangered mammals. Mosquitoes, too, despite being potentially deadly to humans, are a vital food source to birds and mammals.

There are some excellent resources on the internet to learn about the valuable role of insects in all ecosystems:

National Insect Week

Amateur Entomologists’ Society

Insects.org

 

 

 

First ever bird extinction in the Galapagos

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The idyllic islands of the Galapagos have been thought of as paradise on earth ever since Charles Darwin studied its creatures when he traveled there on The Beagle. It has a vast array of long-lost species, endemic to the archipelago, making it one of the most species-rich habitats on earth.

But the Galapagos have recently reported its first ever extinct species.

The California Academy of the Sciences (CAL) have re-evaluated the status of two subspecies of Vermilion Flycatchers, a songbird found only on these islands. The San Cristóbal Island Vermilion Flycatcher was last spotted in 1987 and is believed to be the first modern extinction recorded on the islands. It hasn’t been seen in decades, but importantly CAL’s recent study has shown it to be not a subspecies but a distinct species in its own right, and therefore this is the first bird extinction.

First – but could it be the last? The Galapagos islands face huge threats from invasive species and from the destructive changes of tourism. You can read here about how the Galapagos Conservation Trust is trying to preserve its endemic species that are so fascinating, so scientifically important, and so culturally valuable.

 

Humans Have Cut Down More Than Half The Earth’s Trees… So Far

I haven’t blogged in a few months – I’ve moved house, started a new job, then helped my mother move house. So it’s been very busy and stressful. There’s been some hideous animal stories I’ve missed out on discussing in that time. I’m starting some volunteering soon, which will take up a lot of my writing time, but I’ll try to keep this blog going still.

Let’s talk about trees.

Credit: WWF – http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation

A recent study by Yale University has calculated the shocking decline of tree density.

Using a combination of satellite images, data from forestry researchers on the ground and supercomputer number-crunching, scientists have for the first time been able to accurately estimate the quantity of trees growing on all continents except Antarctica.

The largest forests are found in tropical climates, particularly the Amazon, which is home to a staggering 43% of the world’s trees. The greatest tree density, however, is to be found in the colder climes of Russia, North America and Scandinavia. The scientists documented the influence of growing human populations on tree preservation, and found that, unsurprisingly, as civilizations expand, natural arboreal areas are deforested.

This news is certainly worrying – we have so far cut down around 46% of the world’s trees. The National Geographic claims that “the world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation.”

Crowther, who led the study, had this to say:

…human activity is the largest driver of tree numbers worldwide. While the negative impact of human activity on natural ecosystems is clearly visible in small areas, the study provides a new measure of the scale of anthropogenic effects, highlighting how historical land use decisions have shaped natural ecosystems on a global scale. In short, tree densities usually plummet as the human population increases. Deforestation, land-use change, and forest management are responsible for a gross loss of over 15 billion trees each year.

The WWF explains why forests are vital ecosystems:

forests provide habitats to diverse animal species; they form the source of livelihood for many different human settlements; they offer watershed protection, timber and non-timber products, and various recreational options; they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, and check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis.

But what everyday things can I do to slow deforestation, I hear you ask?

  • Go paperless.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Buy recycled products and then recycle them again.
  • Buy certified wood products from the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).
  • Buy only what you will use.
  • Don’t use Palm Oil or products with Palm Oil.

The Sixth Mass Extinction Event Is Definitely Underway

According to new international research conducted by the Stanford Woods Institute, human activity has prompted the beginning of the Sixth Mass Extinction event recorded on earth, threatening to wipe out hundreds of thousands of species, including humans.

Professor Paul Ehrlich offers what he claims to be a “conservative estimate” of species loss due to human behaviour, which he puts at 100 times faster than the background rate of extinction (a base rate of extinction if humans were absent.) The team deliberately underestimated their estimates because recording species loss is notoriously difficult, yet their statistics are all the more shocking for it.

A devastating mixture of habitat loss, climate change, pollution and overpopulation has led to an environmental disaster that scientists refer to as the Holocene extinction. It is expected that this extinction event will be as severe as the End-Crustaceous Mass Extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That was, of course, due to an asteroid collision; this mass extinction is entirely due to human behaviour.

International Union for Conservation of Nature chart showing species loss over the last century.

And why should we care that species are dying out while humans industrialize the planet? We need biodiversity: it pollinates and irrigates our crops, purifies our water, and produces our food. We are entirely dependent on biodiversity.

UK Fracking Threat Resurfaces

Lancashire County Council is set to decide whether to permit fracking tests on several sites on the Fylde coast. If Cuadrilla are successful in their bid and are able to carry out their tests in Lancashire, they may be able to begin a new application for commercial fracking in the UK.

Fracking has been in the news frequently in the last couple of years, but what exactly is it and why could it be disastrous for the environment? Otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is:

the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.

Why is it controversial?

– Fracking requires a huge amount of water that must be transported to the drilling companies’ remote sites.

– Fracking can cause earthquakes. Several minor tremors in Blackpool in 2011 have been linked to fracking tests.

– Potentially harmful and carcinogenic chemicals could escape around the fracking sites.

– Shale gas is not a renewable or environmentally safe form of energy provision.

The Centre for Biological Diversity have published a more extensive list of some of the observed effects of fracking on wildlife and the environment, based on studies conducted to observe the impact of fracking in 6 US states, where fracking has revolutionized the energy industry.

Fracking has yet to catch on fully in the UK, as generally people don’t want it; the majority of MEPs voted for a moratorium on fracking in a symbolic vote that could see a future ban. The public outcry against fracking is a largely based on the lack of knowledge regarding the environmental impact of shale gas wells, and this report about a study demonstrated that there has been very little investigation into the effects, so there is very little data to draw on when considering the impact. The implication being that if there is no data to condemn fracking, it can be deemed safe. However, the 24/7 traffic, the partitioning of habitats, the leakage of chemicals into the water system, and many other factors, are quite obviously going to have an effect, and it’s probably a bad one.

Protests against fracking sites.

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