Thom Smith | Naturewatch: The soft, plump, furry creature in the soil

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Q: While working in our garden along the driveway, I felt a soft and plump something. When I pulled it up, it had hair, but probably no eyes. It was hard to tell because it was covered with soil. As I loosened my grip, it scooted a short way to the ground and disappeared into the loose soil. Not much of a description I know, but any idea what it could have been?

— Beth-Anne, Hinsdale, Mass.

A: Correct, it isn't much of a description, so I feel safe in taking a guess. As the American toad doesn't have fur, it wasn't that, although they are sometimes found burrowed in soft soil, but they most certainly have eyes.

If, indeed, it did have fur and burrowed back into your garden soil, it probably belongs to the Order Insectivora, a diverse group of mammals that include shrews with long snouts and moles that possess large hand-like forefeet well-suited to digging through soil. Shrews and moles have small eyes, some hard to discern, being hidden beneath short soft hair allowing them easy access through their subterranean tunnels.

We have only one common mole in Berkshire County, the star-nosed mole that is easily identified from all other mammals by the 22 fleshy pink feelers (tentacles) forming a wide and noticeable nasal disk. It also has a long, stout tail, but I suspect this is not what you momentarily held in your hand. The two common species of shrews in The Berkshires include northern short-tailed shrew and the long-tailed shrew. I suggest one of these may be the "something soft and plump."

Q: I am an early riser and I start each day by taking a walk. Throughout the years, I was treated to a spectacular light show each morning as I walked past pasture land along my route. The fields were aglow with dotted lights as the fireflies illuminated the backdrop. This is no longer the case. It has gotten to the point where if I spot a flickering of light I consider myself lucky. It appears to me, by observation only, that climatic changes have decimated the population of the fire flies. Having read your column concerning the plight of the monarch butterfly, is this proof that our natural environment is being compromised by man-made pollutants?

— Joe, Adams, Mass.

A: I could just say we don't know for sure yet, but fireflies have been declining for years, just so slowly that we didn't notice, until one night, when there were just fewer that when we were kids. We readily blame decline of any land species on loss of habitat, pesticides, maybe even global warming, and these may be contributors, but that is not the end of the story. Light pollution doesn't only dim the night sky, it is messing with firefly communication.

Consider how lightning bugs, or fireflies, which are actually beetle, communicate. To attract a mate of the correct species, each flash in a specific pattern. Passing cars and other forms of light pollution, such as street lights, lighting at malls, stores, even homes, may be interrupting their "mating code." This doesn't reduce a population all at once, but means less successful mating and, over time, fewer fireflies, much fewer.

The Boston Museum of Science joined with Tufts University and Fitchburg State University to develop a firefly watch, where citizen scientists (that means any one seriously interested may contribute observations) to determine populations. You can join (or just check the site out) by going to www.mos.org or www.legacy.mos.org/fireflywatch/about_firefly_watch. It is easy to navigate the website and equally easy to join in the survey.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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