For two months, Vladamir Dinets, an assistant research professor of psychology, observed the behavior of ground moles from a city lawn in Chico, California, to dispel the myth that moles live their entire lives underground.
Despite being one of the world’s most common mammals, moles are extremely elusive and little is known about their behavior. Many incorrectly assume that they only dwell underfoot, but Dinets said after spotting them several times above ground, he wanted to learn more about their patterns of appearance.
“At some point, it became clear that something interesting was going on, so I decided to do a study,” Dinets said.
Dinets noticed quickly that adult moles search above ground for insects as a source of food. He then asked for other observers’ accounts through mammalwatching.com, an online forum that allows amateur mammologists to exchange ideas about their findings. What he received, he said, reflected his own findings.
Dinets collected many anecdotes from other mammal enthusiasts and compiled their story into his own research.
“Vladimir’s done a good job of keeping track over the years of all these little anecdotes, just little things he saw here and there, and having the mind to write down his observations,” Todd Freedberg, an associate professor researching animal behavior, said.
The broad-footed moles of California feed above ground but only on nights when there is a damp blanket of leaves that cover the ground. This way, the moles can forage quietly and safely across the ground. It is this elusive behavior that led many to believe they never surface past their molehills.
When the weather becomes warm, the moles retreat deeper into their tunnels, saving time and energy on hunting. This is the opposite for European moles, which spend most of their time above ground during hot, dry months.
"This surprising find shows that there are still lots of interesting discoveries to be made literally in your backyard," Dinets said. "All it takes is being observant and patient and knowing what to make of what you see."
Freedberg said Dinets did what all animal researchers are supposed to do — pay attention.
“It’s like anything that you spend enough time on,” Freedberg said. “You just get better at it with time. There’s this push for citizen science that has been a long-standing tradition in the study of birds … It's a useful way to do science.”
Dinets said that you do not need technology from a lab to conduct research, and anyone can do their own research anywhere if they know what they are passionate about and keep their eyes open for opportunity.