Have you seen suspicious hilly mounds and tunnels criss-crossing your grassy lawn lately? You might rush to the conclusion that the damage was done by moles, but it is also possible that shrews have been hard at work. Shrews and moles belong to the same family, but they're very different animals.
Moles are approximately 5- to 8-inch-long solitary creatures that spend their entire lives underground and rarely, if ever, venture into the light. They have very small, concealed eyes and can only distinguish between shades of light and dark. Moles have extremely soft, velvety fur. Their forefeet are significantly larger and wider than they are long, with sharp claws for digging. Moles live roughly two years and produce a litter of four or five young each year. They are insectivorous, consuming garden insects such as grubs, termites, earthworms and spiders.
Shrews are much smaller than moles, averaging only 4 to 5 inches in length. They have pointed, beak-like noses and small forefeet. Unlike moles, shrews are very active and may be seen scurrying about in the daylight for food. Shrews are so active that they must eat three times their body weight in food just to stay alive. Shrews will breed several times a year, and each litter may contain five to seven young. Shrew will eat insects and small vertebrates like mice and even moles. They will also eat fruit and plants. There are more than 250 recognized species of shrews in the world, and 30 of them, including the short-tailed shrew, can be found in the United States.
The short-tailed shrew is among one of the few mammals with a venomous bite. The shrew's saliva contains a powerful neurotoxin that can immobilize or even kill small prey like mice or frogs. The poison isn't strong enough to harm humans, but it could irritate the skin.
A Final Word about Moles and Shrews
Moles get around by digging elaborate tunnels, occasionally surfacing from time to time and creating scattered piles of dirt. Shrews will often use existing tunnels created by moles, although they will also dig their own. Both moles and shrews can benefit your garden by aerating the soil and eating harmful, plant-destroying insects. If you can live with a few hills and tunnels, your garden may thrive from their presence.
Alissa McElreath is a writer and educator based in Raleigh, N.C. She holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Binghamton and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Rochester. McElreath's work has been published in "Literary Mama" magazine, on the Family Education Network website and in the anthology "Mama, Ph.D.," published by Rutgers University Press.