A study published this week in the journal Nature reveals that this mysterious mole has moves that can put the best magician to shame: The energetic burrower can detect small prey animals and gulp them down with a speed that is literally too fast for the human eye to follow.
It takes a car driver about 650 milliseconds to hit the brake after seeing the traffic light ahead turn red. The star-nosed mole, operating in the Stygian darkness of its burrow, can detect the presence of a tasty tidbit, such as an insect larva or tiny worm, determine that it is edible and gulp it down in half that time.
"Most predators take times ranging from minutes to seconds to handle their prey," says Kenneth C. Catania, assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt, who conducted the study. "The only things I've found that come even close are some species of fish," he says.
The secret to the star-nosed mole's impressive foraging ability is the star-shaped set of appendages that ring its nose. This fleshy star makes the mole one of the oddest looking members of the mammal kingdom. Despite its distinctive appearance--and the fact that it ranges from Canada, down through the Eastern United States as far as Georgia--people rarely see star-nosed moles because they live only in marshes and wetlands.
Catania, working with laboratory assistant Fiona E. Remple, captured the elusive moles' feeding behavior with a high-speed video camera. Because they live in darkness, the moles have very poor eyesight. So they continually survey their environment by repeatedly touching the objects around them with their star appendages. Timing the moles' actions, the researchers found that after touching a small piece of food they took an average of 230 milliseconds to identify it as edible and eat it.