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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week: Week Seventy-Two

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 25 February 2013

Scary MonkeyThere comes a time in everybody’s life when something inevitable happens. Be it a first kiss, suffering a horrible job interview, or making a fool of yourself at the Christmas party. Today, for me, is that day. There are a lot of ‘high profile specimens’ at the Grant Museum that are labelled with this level of importance and acquire the oodles of subsequent respect because they are scientifically important, like the quagga, or gosh darn impressive, like the walrus penis bone. But then, there are specimens, or rather *a* specimen, that is seemingly the object of everybody’s eye, the cream in everyone’s coffee, the Bella to everyone’s Edward (or Jacob, if you will). A day when we, as staff, go through an entire day without hearing this particular set of three short words is a day when we are closed for refurbishment and the builders are having a snow day. It seems therefore, that it was nothing short of inevitable that at some point or another, this specimen would feature in a Specimen of the Week. You (must) know them… you (apparently) love them… this week’s Specimen of the Week is…


**The Jar of Moles** (Can’t believe I’m adding fuel to this fire).


THE Jar of Moles, at the Grant Museum of Zoology. LDUCZ-Z2754

THE Jar of Moles, at the Grant
Museum of Zoology.

1) “Why did you put so many moles in a jar?” is something I get asked a LOT. And it is a fine question. Alas, whilst it would, I have no doubt, have raised me to disciple status with people from far and wide journeying on pilgrimages to catch a glimpse of me or to try to touch my hand, *I* did not, disappointingly, put The moles in The jar. In fact, none of us did. Sorry. Now whoever did put The moles in The jar may have had a variety of reasonings for such behaviour. It firstly stands to reason that, if you have a number of moles lying around, popping them all in an overgrown sweet jar is simply an efficient way of storing them. Or if we were to think more scientific-reasoning than potential-money-and-space-saving-factors, they may have been for an anatomy class that never took place, given that the Museum’s collection was originally formed for the purpose of teaching comparative anatomy.


A field of mole hills. (Image taken by Karelj. Image taken from commons.wikimedia.org)jpg

A field of mole hills. (Image taken by Karelj.
Image taken from commons.wikimedia.org)jpg

2) The Jar of Moles contains individuals of the European variety, in so much as the common name for their species is the European mole. However, having stepped slightly outside the realm of reasonable behaviour, some individuals absconded to Russia and have set up shop in the west of the country. Thus now technically making their common name the ‘European and Russian mole’.
3) European (and Russian) moles will more or less inhabit any ground that is deep enough to dig tunnels in. They have evolved elongate, cylindrical bodies, muscular shoulders and spade-shaped front feet which allow them to excavate with impressive efficiency. A single mole can dig through 20m of earth in a day. So, assuming that the moles that headed in to Russia keep going, from their current position of longitude (around 61 degrees East) a group of moles with a sleep/eat/dig rotational system, at 20 metres a day, can expect to arrive at the Bering Strait in around 19,000 years. The signature mounds of earth that get piled on the surface are formed by the moles pushing it up and out of the way as they excavate.


4) European (and Russian) moles are active both day and night, though are rarely seen above ground during the day. The mole’s diet consists mainly of earthworms, though includes basically anything they can sweep their sensitive little whiskers over in their subterranean hide-aways. When foraging above ground, they will also eat snakes and lizards.


A European (and Russian) mole. (Image taken by Mick E. Talbot. Image taken from commons.wikimedia.org)

A European (and Russian) mole. (Image taken by Mick E.
Talbot. Image taken from commons.wikimedia.org)

5) Whilst moles have famously poor eyesight, it does not hold them up. Even though structurally speaking the moles eyes are ‘complete’, they are so teeny tiny and hidden within the thick fur that even if they could see it wouldn’t do them much good. The eyes are sensitive to light change though, so the mole can tell at the very least tell with some degree of certainty whether it is day-time or night-time (though perhaps not from inside a dark tunnel) but have very little visual acuity. Moles also have no external ears and mainly rely on projections called Eimer’s organs on the muzzle plus sensory whiskers to detect juicy morsels to be snacked upon, and nasty things to be avoided, that enter their tunnel system.

Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

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