AMERICA IS HOME TO UNUSUAL ANIMALS
by Whit Gibbons
March 14, 2004
most TV nature shows still focus on exotic fauna to the exclusion of homegrown
varieties, some columns are worth repeating. I am not suggesting that
koalas from Australia and anacondas from South America be banned from
the airwaves. To be sure, these are fascinating animals worthy of recognition.
What concerns me is that many viewers get the impression you must go to
exotic lands to see engaging creatures.
think that North America has little to offer in the way of intriguing
mammalian wildlife aside perhaps from wolves and grizzly bears. But we
actually have several species of notable mammals that most people have
never seen or heard of. Even biologists know little about some of these
creatures, so they are seldom if ever the topic of discussion.
specimens that come to mind are the mountain beaver and the pika of the
West and the starnose mole of the East. Ironically, all may owe their
continued existence to having virtually no economic significance; they
are neither something good to acquire or bad to get rid of.
is familiar with the dam-building beaver, our largest rodent. But what
do we know about the mountain beaver, or aplodontia, of the western states?
Mountain beavers are also rodents but belong to a different family from
true beavers, and the North American species is the only living member.
They are considered to be the most primitive rodents in the world.
beavers, which have no obvious tail, look somewhat like dark brown guinea
pigs a little more than a foot in length. They have tiny ears and eyes.
Little is known of their biology except that they live along the edges
of waterways where they make burrows and trails. A certain type of flea
is found only on mountain beavers and would have no interest in biting
a dog or human.
mole of the eastern states is an enigma, its most intriguing feature being
22 long, fleshy tentacles that flare out from the end of the nose. The
exact function of the tentacles remains unknown, as far as I am aware,
but the tentacles may be used to find prey by sensing vibrations. Starnose
moles differ from the half-dozen kinds of soil-digging moles of North
America in being expert swimmers. They reach lengths of less than six
inches, are generally found near streams or lakes, and are seldom obvious.
ecology of the starnose mole is poorly understood, and many biological
mysteries surround these creatures. Even the geographic range of starnose
moles is open to question and may be much greater than shown in mammal
field guides. Researchers at the Savannah River Ecology Lab have captured
them in areas where they have not been previously reported. These have
been captured with a trapping system known as pitfall traps designed to
capture reptiles and amphibians. Starnose moles fall into the pitfall
traps, but they do not enter standard mammal traps and so may go undetected
closely related to rabbits. These little balls of brown or gray fur are
restricted to high mountain regions where they live among the rocks. They
have big rounded ears and no tail, and they make squeaking sounds like
a squeeze toy. They eat mountain vegetation, storing grasses beneath boulders
for a food supply during cold periods. The most likely place to see a
live pika is in western mountains. I have seen them peeking out from craggy
slopes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
And if other
unusual North American creatures are needed for the nature show, how about
flying squirrels, which are found in most of the states and all Canadian
provinces but are seldom seen because they do their aerial gliding at
night? And what about the two-inch-long pygmy shrew of Canada and colder
parts of the United States, a tiny animal that is possibly the world's
could reduce travel budgets by focusing on interesting U.S species. A
show on lightning bugs, velvet ants, chicken turtles, or glass lizards
could be captivating. No need to go far afield for a glimpse of exotic
animals: we have our share of biological mystery and intrigue at home.
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