Learning To See

Shrew-Mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii)

The question is not what you look at, but what you see.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

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Sight is a gift we often take for granted.  We look, but we don’t really see.

It wasn’t until we became forest dwellers that I realized how much I had taken the gift of sight for granted.  To my untrained eyes, the forest wove a tapestry in such a way it was difficult to tell one thing from another.  Forest met sky.  Of the many brilliant colors only Nature can produce, plants as well as birds and other animals were lost in a green and brown mosaic. 

Slowly, I acquainted myself with my new surroundings.  I made a list, and learned the names and habits of the plants and animals around me.  Keeping a writing journal and sketchbook brought me closer to my subjects.  In time, the forest that had overwhelmed me became less confusing, and I was delighted with what I saw.

It was the obvious plants and animals that I noticed first, but soon I started to see the little things as well.  One morning, while walking the Deer Path along South Bank that runs the length of our property, I stopped to admire a colony of Cascade Oregon grape (Berberis (Mahonia) nervosa), that were just starting to come into fruit.  I knelt to have a look at the berries, and heard a slight rustling in the rotting leaves at my feet.  Still and silent, I watched and waited.  The leaves began to pulse like the rhythm of a heartbeat when up popped a small, pink nose that twitched and wriggled like an earthworm;  next, up popped a dark furry head and body.  It was the shrew-mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii); also called American shrew-mole, Gibb’s shrew-mole, and least shrew-mole—one of the smallest animals in all the forest.    

Pencil sketch of Shrew-Mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii)

While this was not our first meeting, it was certainly one of the most memorable.  Until now, I’d known the shrew-mole only in death.  Each a victim of a feral cat mauling.  These little animals must not taste very good, because not one of them had been eaten.  I was surprised by their numbers.  I had no idea there were so many of them in these woods.  In spring and summer, I found about one per day, with fewer casualties in fall and winter.  While it saddened and angered me to think they had died solely for amusement, their misfortune did give me the chance to study them up close.

The shrew-mole belongs to the Mole Family, but is neither a shrew nor a mole. Instead, this unique half-breed takes on the characteristics of both.  Unlike true moles that push up soil and leave behind molehills that resemble cow pies, the shrew-mole leaves hardly a trace of it comings and goings.  The shrew-mole is active day and night.  Mole-like, it spends its time tunneling through moss, leaf litter, and loose topsoil (especially around the base of snags, stumps and logs), in search of snails, slugs, earthworms, and insects.  Other times, it acts like a shrew and will climb shrubs to catch insects.

It is near the salmonberry thicket, that I find the most casualties.  As I held the most recent victim in my hand, I was surprised how soft its fur felt against my skin.  Its body (smaller than a hummingbird!), weighed not more than 10 grams, which is about the maximum weight for this little animal.  The body measured 3 inches long, but smaller ones do occur that are only 2 1/2 inches long.  The tail, sparsely covered with short, wiry hair measured 1 1/2 inches long.  The skull has 36 teeth. The snout, long and slender, is somewhat flattened and heavily whiskered.   The eyes are small and beady, and there are no visible ears.  The front feet, slightly larger than the hind feet, do not turn away from the body like true moles, which makes them ill equipped for heavy digging.  Shrew-moles make their nests in rotting stumps and logs, and mate year-round.  Females produce more than one litter per year, and have 1 to 4 young.  The shrew-mole is beneficial in that it cultivates the debris layer on the forest floor, and eats 1 1/2 times its weight per day of insect pests!  Natural predators include hawks, owls, crows, and weasels.  The shrew-mole is North America’s smallest mole, and is indigenous to damp forests, streams banks, and ravines of the Pacific Northwest from southwestern British Columbia to California.

Pencil sketch of a Townsend Mole (Scapanus townsendii)

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Keeping company with the shrew-mole, and occasionally suffering the same fate, is the Townsend mole (Scapanus townsendii)–the largest mole in North America.  The name Scapanus means “digger” which describes this little animal perfectly.  Well equipped with strong, over-sized, front feet, it tunnels easily through deep and shallow soil like a swimmer doing the breaststroke.  In its wake, it leaves a multitude of molehills that frustrates gardeners, farmers, and landscapers alike.

Unfortunately, it’s the unsightly molehills and its appetite for grass roots and tubers that have labeled this beneficial animal a pest.  Molehills can be as large as 12 inches high and 17 1/4 inches in diameter!  (Pocket gopher mounds are fan-shaped.)  If you’ve ever handled soil from a molehill, you know just how soft and airy it feels.  Perfectly sifted, I will sometimes mix it with potting soil or will use it in its place.  In the wild, the Townsend mole is highly beneficial as it mixes and aerates the soil, which allows for good absorption.  It also has a voracious appetite for earthworms as well as sowbugs, beetles, centipedes, insect larvae, and other insect pests.

Mole Skin

Active year-round, the Townsend mole does much of its work at night, and favors wet conditions.  In Oregon, that can add up to a lot of activity.  In the forest, I have had the good fortune of seeing this mole pushing up soil in broad daylight, but have yet to see one alive above ground.

The Townsend mole has a stout body and weighs from 50 to 170 grams (males being larger than females).  Its body measures 5 inches long and is covered with short, blackish-brown fur that feels as soft as silk.  The tail measures 1 1/2 inches long; it is pink and nearly hairless.  Most noticeable are the large front feet that are flat and wider than they are long, and that turn out and away from the body displaying smooth palms and large white claws.  The skull has 44 teeth.  The snout is long and pink with a few sparse whiskers, and nostrils that open upward.  The eyes are so small they virtually cease to exist, and the ears are not visible.  Males are  territorial and will oftentimes fight to the death.  This might explain why I often find them dead in the yard.  Females have one litter per year, and produce 2 to 6 young.  Females will often build a large mound of soil, and make their nest directly below.

Townsend’s Mole Mound in Old-Growth Forest

The Townsend mole occupies lawns, fields, floodplains, meadows, and conifer forests west of the Cascades from southern British Columbia to the northern tip of California.  (In British Columbia, it is considered a threatened species due to loss of habitat.)  

It’s an amazing world out there when one takes the time to see it.

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Copyright 2011.  All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “Learning To See

  1. Great article and love the sketches. I could take all the classes on earth with the same result, stick men with funny hats and shoes. LOL. Oh my.
    We have a lot of moles and shrews up here in the White Mountains. I live on a farm at 2150 ft . 20 acres of wild blueberry fields and 30 acres of forest. Good home for the shrews and other little critters. Isn’t great what we can see. A lot of I wishes with that one. Mostly, meaning that if the peoples of the world would see, life for all would be so much better. Blogs like this one can certainly help and most likely does in ways you will never see.
    Look forward to reading more.

    1. Jude, your farm sounds wonderful; a haven for plants and wildlife! Moles and shrews have always fascinated me. They do so much good it’s a shame they aren’t appreciated more. For me, keeping a sketchbook helps me connect with a subject in ways that a photo can’t. Thank you so much for your kind comments. It’s my hope that stories like ours, can make a difference.

  2. You have brought up a very good details , thanks for the post. “Beginnings are apt to be shadowy and so it is the beginnings of the great mother life, the sea.” by Rachel Carson.

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