David Attenburger's Wonderful World of Nature

The Moroccan Dancing Mole

Dusk in the Serengeti and as the dusty orb of the sun touches the tops of distant hills, turning their peaks into burning pillars of red, a movement beneath the dry earth causes ripples and eddies in the red baked soil. Slowly a pink nose breaks through the hard ground, followed by strong claws, scratching away until the gap is wide enough for the animal to emerge. Its shabby coat is slick with grease and grime, and it half-heartedly tries to shake the dirt free as it sits panting and wheezing, trying its best to recover from its efforts.

This is the Moroccan Dancing Mole, though why it bears that name is lost in the mists of time. It has never been observed to dance, preferring to slump sullenly on the edge of dancefloors and just watch. The most common explanation is that the early Europeans who first identified it were simply attempting to be ironic.

This one is a long way from home: Morocco is roughly three thousand six hundred miles away as the crow flies - even longer as the mole digs. But journeys of such length, even if they're not intentional, are not unusual when you can't see where you're going.

Moles are as blind as bats, which, notwithstanding the curious subterranean habits of the stub-nosed tunnelling bat, is all that the two species have in common. But whereas bats can rely on sophisticated sonar techniques, a heightened sense of spatial awareness and sat-nav to find their way about, moles enjoy no such luxuries.

This one is no different. Three months ago it set out on what it thought would be a short trip to the bazaar in Marrakech to pick up a pint of milk, some crusty baps for the weekend and a Curly Wurly as a special treat. Right now it's sitting the middle of a baking plain, surrounded by zebras and wondering where the off licence has gone.

It sniffs the air, cocks its head to one side listening for the slightest clue as to its whereabouts and shuffles round in a little circle. Night is quickly approaching, and with it the cool breeze. A new cast of predators will shortly take to the stage. This tiny, vulnerable creature, all alone in this strange and terrifying environment, doesn't know much, but it knows enough to realise that it should leave this place. With an almost world-weary sense of resignation, it crawls back into the earth, disappearing back into its dark netherworld to continue its journey and end up who knows where.

Clueless though the Moroccan Dancing Mole may be, it has nevertheless provided researchers with a valuable insight into a question that has puzzled them for some time: can moles swim? They have most certainly never been observed to. Go to any municipal swimming pool and you can be confident that you will never see a mole lazily gliding through the water on its back, or playfully splashing about in the shadows. You will see more than your fair share of stoats and weasels practising their front crawl in the main pool, vigorously towelling themselves off in the changing rooms or embarrassing themselves from the top diving board. But moles have always remained conspicuous by their absence.

And there is a very good reason why the ability to swim might be very important. Because navigation when you are almost blind is a practical impossibility for them, they are constantly driving their tunnels in directions that are simply not healthy for them. There are many reports of lost moles emerging on cliff faces and plummeting to their deaths, getting irretrievably entangled in the roots of trees or simply dashing their brains out by colliding head on with buried rocks. The law of averages surely dictates that they must quite frequently emerge underneath rivers and lakes. Why then have we no reports of their pitiful and misguided carcasses unhappily bubbling to the surface?

It took a team of researchers two years to find the answer, and when they did it turned out to be rather startling: they build airlocks.

Using a vast purpose-built landscape in which they could study the moles at their leisure, researchers observed exactly what happened when the moles were in danger of tunnelling up through the bed of an artificial lake. The moment the mole detects the first few spots of moisture on the tip of its nose, it springs into action. Using materials that it scavenges from its immediate surroundings - sticks, rocks, discarded bean tins and old inner tubes - it fashions a remarkably sophisticated airlock mechanism, tightly bound together with worms to make it airtight.

Using this arrangement, the mole can pass in and out of the water without the risk of flooding its carefully excavated network of tunnels. And, as it turns out, they can't swim, but they can hold their breath and actually cut quite graceful figures as they stroll up and down, annoying the fish.

Mole airlock

It seems then that water actually presents very few problems for the average mole, whether it's a rushing torrent sweeping through a North American ravine, a muggy swamp on the equator...

... or here in the Arctic, where the wind sweeps a fine cloud of powdered snow down icy slopes to settle on the surface of bright blue pools of crystal brine, ringed with frost.

For a moment all is still then a dark shape from below comes rushing upwards, bobbing violently to the surface and spitting a huge plume of brackish water into the air. This is our Moroccan Dancing Mole again, still no closer to the off licence. Maybe it should have turned left at that last boulder, it thinks as it glances round in dismay and shivers. It treads water for a little while, hoping that one of the locals will come along so that it can ask directions, but after a few short minutes it decides that it's just a bit too nippy round here. It'll catch its death if it hangs about any longer, so it fixes on a likely direction, takes a deep breath, puffs out its fat furry cheeks and disappears back below the surface with a wet plop.

 


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