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The Star-Nosed Mole

by Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent of the Times
published in The Times, 3 February 2005

Blind, ugly and a fast food junkie -
it's the mole with the fastest reflexes on the planet

photograph: a star-nosed mole
A Star-Nosed Mole

It is the ultimate proof that fast food does nothing for the complexion: scientists have discovered that natureís quickest eater is one of its ugliest creatures ó the star-nosed mole. The odd-looking mammal, which sports a grotesque crown of fleshy tendrils around its snout, can detect and gulp down its prey at a speed too fast for the human eye to follow, even though the animal is virtually blind.

From the moment that it touches insect larva with its proboscis, it takes just 230 milliseconds to check that it is edible and gobble it up. This is the fastest known reaction time in the animal kingdom, taking less than half the 650 milliseconds that a human driver needs to brake for a red light.

The star-nosed mole, which lives in perpetual darkness, uses its array of 22 nasal appendages in the same way that a blind person uses a cane. The main difference is the speed with which the appendages probe the ground. They can examine 13 targets every second.

The mole also benefits from well-adapted teeth, which are smaller than those of other moles and are formed like tweezers. The research was carried out at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and is published today in Nature. Kenneth Catania, who led the study, said: "Most predators take times ranging from minutes to seconds to handle their prey. The only things Iíve found that come even close are some species of fish."

The moles often make mistakes, lunging in the wrong direction before correcting their strikes. This suggests that that they are operating close to the limits of the speed of their brain. "If additional research confirms that this is the case, then these little animals can inform us about an important limitation to the brainís ability to process information and make decisions," Dr Catania said.

Every spring, Kenneth Catania travels from the Tennessee campus of Vanderbilt University, where he is a research assistant professor in the psychology department, to the wetlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania. There, in addition to star-nosed moles, he inevitably encounters shrews, voles, weasels, field mice, and the occasional snapping turtle.

Catania’s interest in star-nosed moles began more than a decade ago, when he was working with small mammals at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. His current research focuses on brain organization and behaviour in mammals — including hedgehogs and opossums as well as moles — with an emphasis on cerebral cortex function. Recipient of the 1998 Capranica Foundation Award and the International Society of Neuroethologists' 1998 Young Investigator Award, Catania is also interested in how complex brains have evolved.

photograph: Kenneth Catania
Kenneth Catania

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Brian Alderton, Molecatcher

Jeff Nicholls, Molecatcher

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