Neuroscientist studies brains of bizarre-looking mammals

Ken Catania studies the brains of some of the strangest-looking mammals alive: the star-nosed mole and the naked rat mole.

I used to be a little defensive about studying such bizarre animals, the assistant professor of biological sciences acknowledges. But then I realized that what makes these animals so strange is their extreme specialization and, for that very reason, there is a great deal that we can learn from studying them.

Catanias research strategy appears to by paying off. He has just been awarded one of only 15 fellowships given annually by the Searle Foundation, a highly competitive honor that will provide him with $240,000 to use on his research for the next three years. The award follows hard on the heels of having one of his papers selected as the cover article for the April issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

An interest in the sense of touch led Catania to the community of moles. In their underground world there is little light, so vision is not very important. Also, sounds are attenuated and hearing is not that valuable either. That leaves the senses of touch and smell pre-eminent.

His first research subject was the star-nosed molean animal that looks very much like an ordinary mole except that it has a peculiar star of fleshy appendages ringing its nose. Although they range from Canada, down through the Eastern United States as far as Georgia, people rarely see these unusual-looking creatures because they are the only moles that live in marshes and wetlands. here have been a lot of different ideas about the function of this unusual nose ornament, but it was not until Catania studied this star-shaped proboscis as part of his doctoral thesis at the University of California, San Diego that the stars true function came to light. He established that it is an extraordinary touch organ, covered with more than 25,000 microscopic sensory receptors that allow the hamster-sized mole to literally feel its way around its subterranea

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Vanderbilt University

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