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Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Star-Nosed Mole Is Almost Too Weird

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Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The more we learn about the star-nosed mole, the stranger this animal gets—and that’s saying something. We learned just a little bit more this week, as mole expert Kenneth Catania presented his latest findings at the 2017 Experimental Biology Meeting in Chicago.

The neuroscientist has been obsessed with the lumpy, hamster-sized creatures since his days as a research assistant at the National Zoo.

Kenneth Catania

“Obviously they are among the weirdest looking creatures on the planet,” he said in a statement. "But when I began trying to understand the star, the mole’s brain organization, and its behavior—that’s when things got really surprising.”

In 2011, for example, Catania realized that the moles have developed a technique for smelling underwater. They aim their strange snoots at fish or other prey, then start blowing bubbles. The bubbles bounce off the hapless prey and are instantly snorted back up by the mole, who reads the scent of the captured air.

The mole’s “star” is an extraordinary organ unlike anything else in the animal kingdom. It’s a cluster of prehensile tentacles packed with more than 100,000 sensory receptors. (A human fingertip, one of the most sensitive parts of our body, has about 3000.)

The star's receptors are unbelievably responsive, Catania said—“so sensitive that we have not been able to determine the lowest threshold for activating neurons.”

This super sensitivity gives blind moles a huge advantage over their prey. It only takes 8 thousandths of a second for them to identify something they’ve touched, which means they can spot and gobble up a juicy worm before the worm even realizes what’s happening. No mammal eats faster.

The root of the star’s dazzling capacity is a tiny section called the touch fovea, which functions almost exactly like our eyes. As the mole turns its attention to an object, the touch fovea moves over it and focuses, as your gaze might rest and zoom in on a plate of cookies.

"These parallels suggest there are common strategies by which evolution 'builds' high-resolution sensory systems,” Catania said, “whether they are based on sight or on touch.”

Weird? You bet. But to those like Catania who know them best, they’re "truly amazing animals.”

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Animals
Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Howl at Sirens?
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A dog's behavior can often prove confusing to their human colleagues. We know they like to eat their own poop, but puzzle at their motivations. We're surprised when dogs give a ladybug the same greeting as a home intruder.

Topping the list of eccentric canine behavior: Why do dogs howl at sirens? Is there some genetic predisposition to responding to a high-pitched alarm from passing ambulances or police vehicles?

As it turns out, the reason dogs howl at sirens is because of their ancestry—namely, the wolf. When members of a pack are fractured and spread out, their companions will howl to provide a way of locating them. Think of it as nature’s GPS: By howling, dogs are able to communicate their respective locations to one another, even across long distances.

Since dogs really don’t know what a cop car is supposed to sound like, they’ll often interpret a siren as an animal’s howl. It’s also possible that dogs consider sirens to be a sign that something is abnormal in their environment, and that they want you, the pack leader, to be aware of it.

Contrary to belief, a dog is rarely howling because the noise hurts their delicate ears. If that were the case, some experts say, then they would display other behaviors, like running and hiding.

The more a dog hears and responds to a siren, the more they might be compelled to continue the behavior. That’s because dogs who howl and then notice the sound drifting away might begin to associate their vocalizing with the disappearance of the noise. In the future, they’ll probably recall that they “drove” the interloper away with their warbling and repeat the process.

While howling is usually harmless, sometimes it can be a sign that your pet is feeling separation anxiety from an owner or that they’re feeling unwell. If howling persists even without a screaming siren within earshot, you might consider taking them in for a check-up.

If you’ve wondered why dogs howl at sirens, now you know. It’s simply a way of signaling their location and not because it pains them. Owners, on the other hand, might feel differently.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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