Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Mole.

     My wife and I chanced to have dinner and a movie with some dear friends of ours.  Briefly, the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is far from the edge of your seat thriller.  My friend’s wife slept through it all, my wife tried to, and my friend said that he had seen many independent movies and that this was particularly hard to follow.  I enjoyed it for what it was. That being said, the movie was dreadfully slow and painfully precise.  Since I am neck deep in thesis material I haven’t had time to read the book so I called my grandfather.
     He said he had figured it out by the second or third chapter, and that it was incredibly slooowwww (the drawn out emphasis is his).  I had hoped the book would have been better but, alas, perhaps no. Now, I told you all that to tell you this: The premise of this story began my gears whirring anew. Why are spies within organizations called “moles” anyway? (I haven’t found out yet) For that matter why isn’t there more attention paid to moles in the natural world? And, why, oh why do I end up thinking about these things after watching movies? (I haven’t found that out yet either.)

An Eastern Mole.  Look at those hands.
Think how dramatic a molian facepalm would be.

     My first positive relationship with a mole was the fictional Moley in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, which is and forever will be my favorite book.  Of all the animated/action renditions my hat has always been off to the folks at Rankin/Bass for their portrayal.

Always have to appreciate it when he tells Ratty he
“Can’t say I really love duck poems”

A side note: Roddy McDowell’s Ratty is the reason that I have always pronounced the world ad-VERT-isment and not ad-ver-TISE-ment. But, back to Moles. I also tried Pate de foie gras once just to see.  I wouldn’t sing about it, but I tried it thanks to this song. I guess animation works on impressionable children. I tried pate, I never bought anything from Acme.

     But, back to moles.  My first relationship with moles were as pest in the yards of my grandparents.  They would burrow everywhere and destroy their garden.  They would set mole traps and if I was visiting I would go with them to check the traps.  Mole fur is incredibly soft, if you have never felt one.  I also remember being confused at my great grandparents calling moles “salamanders” but I never questioned them, I just quietly kept my knowing better to myself. (that was once the m.o. for all children)


      I don’t know much about the fossil record of moles. Given the little research I plinked through for this update, that may be due to the lack of an extensive fossil record.  You would think that a burrowing animal would be more likely to become a fossil since it was buried in its burrow upon death.  Apparently there is a burrow patrol among moledom that facilitates the removal of any deceased parties and rendering any extra chance at fossilization null and void.

     There is a late Miocene (somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 m.y.a) mole fossil from Idaho that shows characteristics similar to the modern coast mole. They are so similar in fact that they are lumped into the same genus: Scapanus.  Scapanus hagermanensis hails from the Hagerman Fossil beds in Idaho.

Scapanus hagermanensis

    There are also phylogenic complications within the realm of the mole. Oh, are there some interesting connections here. 
The Golden Mole:
A Golden Mole
The golden moles belong to the same branch on the tree of life as the tenrecs, called Tenrecomorpha or Afrosoricida which in turn stems from a main branch of placental mammals called the Afrosoricida. Not so scientifically interesting, but in the words of Hamlet, “Aye, there lies the rub.” This means that they share a closer common ancestor with such existing Afrosoricids as Elephants, Manatees and Aardvarks than they do with other placental mammals. Genetics. Wow. The Mole apparently falls a long way from the tree. 

The Marsupial Mole:

This has got to be one of the most awesome nature photographs ever. 

The marsupial mole’s awesomeness is two-fold. First and far most, this little critter looks more eccentric than anything that ever haunted George Lucas or Peter Jackson’s nightmares.  Secondly there is some genetic marsupial connection that make it interesting to other people. As marsupials, these moles are even more distantly related to true talpidae moles than golden moles, (think rich-great-granduncle twice removed) both of which are placental mammals. So what does this mean? This means that Marsupial Moles are more closely related to such existing Australian marsupials, kangaroos or koalas, and even to a lesser extent to American marsupials such as opossums than they are to placental mammals such as Golden Moles or Talpidae moles.

They may also be the Studebakers if their genus,
as it is difficult to tell the direction of travel based on their shape
    In 2010 the Marsupial Mole again stood some folks on their ears. A fossil find indicated that they likely evolved in rainforests than in the deserts they call home today.  That fascinating article can be be found in Australian Geographic.

Moles ran amok in Scotland for a time and would have been just another plague on the isle had Queen Alexandra not ordered a mole fur garment and set off a craze.  (Not unlike Kate’s wedding dress phenomenon.)  I am tempted to draw a parallel with my young life and that of the queen.  Did the queen, on visits to her grandparents wander with them to check the mole traps? Did she inspect the perished vermin intently, gently rubbing its soft fur? Did she in the back of her mind think, “when I am queen I shall have a garment of this?” Probably not.  I guess there is no parallel,  I never thought I would be Queen. 

   So, we leave the stately mole, with a passing mention of the Star-nose mole that can smell underwater by blowing air bubbles  and snorting them back in. Great little creature there too.  

The Star-nosed Mole. For obvious reasons. 

I doubt there will ever be a save the mole foundation, but I hope people will take it a bit farther to ponder on these creatures a bit. As more than mere infiltrating spies, nasty dangling growths on your aunt’s neck, or the namesake for the journals that so many of us use. There are greatly adapted for their environments and go unnoticed by some, cursed by many, and understood by few.  

General knowledge of the mole. From nps.gov

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