Star-nosed moles are undoubtedly some of the most bizarre looking animals in the world. You might be tempted to think it was a tiny octopus if you come up to one. Even though it is nearly blind, the American species can eat almost any insect or worm in less than a quarter of an second. The fuzzy little carnivore moves in constant motion as it ploughs through the soggy soils. The mole doesn't see in the dark underground world. Instead, it feels a world buzzing with prey. The mole hunts by rubbing its star against the ground as fast as possible. It can reach 10 to 12 different locations in one second.
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Although it looks random, it isn't. 100,000 nerve fibers transmit information to the brain of the mole with each touch. This is five times the number of touch sensors in the human hand. They are all contained within a smaller nose than a fingertip. It's also one of only two animals that can sense underwater by blowing bubbles into its nose and sucking them in. These are just some of the amazing facts about star-nosed moles, according to Ken Catania, a neuroscientist from Vanderbilt University. He says, "If I use the word "amazing" a lot, it is because I feel that way about them." He used the word 'amazing' ten times when describing them. Catania will present research from three decades at Chicago's Experimental Biology annual meeting on Thursday. This is part of a symposium about the most extreme anatomy in the world.
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Catania, the world's foremost expert on star-nosed moles, is a bit of an oddity. Biologists only study a small number of species. Some even discourage students from choosing a pet. Catania argues for the study of the world's strangeos, creatures with heightened abilities that reveal something about the way we work. He says that evolution has solved many problems in a variety of ways. "We can learn so many things from that diversity. Studying touch in the sensitive nose of the mole has provided clues as to how touch functions at the molecular level. Catania discovered that the brain has a huge star pattern that mirrors the mole’s unusual nose. The mole creates a star-shaped view by pressing its star to the ground. These images are then reassembled in its brain as pieces of a puzzle.
How can we ease our pain?
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Neuroscientist Diana Bautista studies pain and itching at the University of California in Berkeley. "Compared to other senses, our sense of touch is very limited." Bautista called Catania from the blue, asking for collaboration. He insisted that she go mole collecting with him in rural Pennsylvania. She says that digging for moles in underground burrows in a wetlands was difficult work.
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Only one mole species, the star-nosed, is found in swamps and marshes. There are 39 others. The mole's beautiful snout may have been designed to quickly eat small, soft-bodied prey in a waterlogged environment. Bautista worked with Catania to discover molecules in the mole’s star that turn a physical force - whether it's the brushing of a feather, or the pricking of a needle - into electrical signals that become the currency of our nervous system. These molecules can also be found in humans, so new pain treatments might be possible.
More Mole Mysteries
Catania still has mole mysteries to solve. Can they feel detailed textures just by touching their rays?
How does the star develop? What molecules and genes are involved in its development? And how does its brain amplify the touch signals from its no? How does the mole keep its star functioning when it plunges into ice cold water, as it doesn't hibernate during winter?
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