What’s with the nose on the star-nosed mole?

Neuroscientist Ken Catania describes the sensitivity of the star-nosed mole.

Vocabulary: adaptation, sensory organs, evolve, neocortex

Next Generation Science Standards: SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems, LS1.A: Structure and Function, LS4.C: Adaptation

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11–12.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11–12.4

Credit: Ken Catania

On a list of the world’s most unusual looking mammals, the star-nosed mole sits close to the top — its snout erupts in a burst of fleshy, pink appendages. And with the mole’s uncommon appearance come some uncommon abilities. Its nose is the most sensitive organ of any mammal’s; there’s no threshold below which its neurons don’t fire, says Ken Catania, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. The center of the star is called the “touch fovea” and is organized much like a highly developed visual system, “almost like a retina stuck to the outside of the animal,” says Catania. The sensitivity in the nose of a star-nosed mole makes up for the fact that they are mostly blind.

Audio Excerpt “The Star-Nosed Mole Takes Adaptation To The Extreme,” April 28, 2017. (Original Segment)

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Courtesy Ken Catania

Questions

  • How do you think these highly-sensitive noses benefit star-nosed moles?
  • According to Ken Catania, receptive fields of skin are like pixels in a camera. What is Ken Catania trying to illustrate with this analogy?
  • Lots of species of mole have tiny eyes because they spend almost all of their life in the dark, underground. Why do you think only star-nosed moles have this super sensitive nose? What might this say about their environment compared to that of other species of mole?
  • Ken Catania repeatedly calls the star-nosed mole amazing. What two details from the interview provide the most convincing evidence that the star-nosed mole is an amazing organism? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • What further questions do you have? Share at least one scientific question that could be answered using data from an investigation of star-nosed moles (in the lab or out in the field). Explain how you might go about answering your scientific question.

Activity Suggestion

Have students develop questions related to the sensitivity of human senses and design tests to investigate them. Use these activities on taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight to get an idea of the supplies and resources to have available to support student inquiry. After conducting their test, challenge students to modify their test so that it could be applied to different species. The goal is to compare the sensory organs of different species.

Additional Resources

There is already more! Take a closer look at Ken’s research with star-nosed moles and other animals.