Magazine article Science News

Mole Sniffs the World in Stereo: Nostrils of Unlovely Mammal Can Track Direction to Odors

Magazine article Science News

Mole Sniffs the World in Stereo: Nostrils of Unlovely Mammal Can Track Direction to Odors

Article excerpt

The common mole may be homely, but its nose is a wonder to behold.

The eastern American mole, also known as the common mole, tracks down an earthworm treat by recognizing the slightly different odor cues entering each nostril, neurobiologist Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University in Nashville reports online February 5 in Nature Communications.

The finding suggests that even though mole nostrils are separated by only a fraction of a centimeter, each gets its own scent information that can guide an animal's actions. "It's an elegant demonstration of what many people suspected," says Peter Brunjes, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. Previous experiments with people and rats had reached contradictory conclusions regarding whether smell, like sight and hearing, is a bilateral sense.

Catania never expected the common mole, Scalopus aquaticus, to have uncommon abilities. "I've described it as the unlucky, stupid cousin of the star-nosed mole," he says. Star-nosed moles, Condylura cristata, have an incredible sense of touch in their tentacled schnozzes and are among the world's fastest foragers. But compared with other mole species, the eastern American mole has a poor sense of touch. The animals also can't see. Catania turned to common moles because he thought they would have a hard time finding food and could be tested against star-nosed moles in future experiments.

But when he placed a common mole in a semicircular arena with a chopped-up bit of earthworm as bait, he says, "it would wiggle its nose around and go in a beeline toward the food. …

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