I wanted to find some more international species for this list. Otherwise it would just be a list of ‘Britain, Europe and Temperate North America’s Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ and the title is bloody well long enough as it is without having to be so specific.
The other thing is I didn’t just want to look at it through the lens of my own nation. There is so much cultural capital that is taken for granted by us in the Northern Hemisphere and Western World. Much of our global science is centred on institutions based in these locations and even projects in the ‘Global South’, the Indian Subcontinent or Asia have Western scientists attached to them.
I don’t want to be part of that problem, I’d rather be, as much as I can as a white British guy, a part of the solution and expand people’s horizons a little.
Last time out we talked about the aye-aye, for example, a species endemic to the island of Madagascar which, internationally, is considered lovely – if a little…special – but, as far as we knew, was considered evil on Madagascar. Using recent survey research from Madagascar it was found that actually, at least within the communities studied, reception of the aye-aye was mostly neutral or positive. It also found that proximity to the aye-aye, having seen them, was the most positive correlate with a neutral or positive opinion. Those who had not seen the aye-aye were most suspicious of it.
This makes sense, build up the reputation of teddy-bears as boogeymonsters to people and they’ll freak out when they see a teddy-bear. People brave enough, or not superstitious enough, to approach the teddy-bear will realise it is an inanimate tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff and hug it.
What does this long-winded introduction have to do with today, though?
As I talked about in the aye-aye article, it is easy for us here in the West to look at other cultures, their treatment of their local species and gasp and go “Ooh, isn’t it awful!” and take what is, basically, a racist opinion of them. We consider the aye-aye as a rare and unique lemur species, a nocturnal bug-muncher and wonder how people could possibly consider it wrong. But that’s easy to do at a distance, not having grown up in the culture that has vilified this creature for potentially hundreds of years.
There is a universality to ignorance of our ecosystems and the role of species within them. There is a universality to the creation of a mythos, the formation of reputations about our local wildlife and nobody escapes that ignorance. Potentially not even scientists themselves! I am learning that species that are disliked in general are species it is often difficult to get funding for research on! The scientific establishment is not immune from that prejudice. It takes special people to struggle to study unpopular species, to beg for funding time after time, to find their papers languishing in the ‘do not publish’ piles not because of the quality of their science or the importance of their findings but merely for the lack of popularity of their subject.
We’re all shit!
So today we are going to focus on two species, one eastern (the Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae)) and one western (the European mole (Talpa europaea)) and how they effectively each fulfil similar roles in terms of ecosystem services to soil, but also each have a reputation for ruining crops, and plants, damaging livestock and spoiling the soil and are thus both persecuted, killed or poisoned as a result.
Most of my readers probably know what a mole is so let’s start with them because it’ll be pretty simple.
The European mole is a small, underground dwelling mammal that loves to dig and tunnel and eat a lot of insects and earthworms. They are usually around 10-15cm long, give or take, the females being slightly (like, 5% slightly!) smaller than males. They are also very difficult to sex because they have very similar looking genitals.
Their body form is as close to cylindrical as you could possible get. In fact they basically look like a cute, fat, fuzzy drill bit. They have shortish fur that unlike a lot of mammalian fur does not have a ‘grain’ or a direction in which it grows. This allows moles to easily move forward, or backward, without discomfort, in their narrow tunnels.
They are mostly an ashy-brown sort of colour, although other colour morphs are known, including white, tan, completely black or even piebald (black and white) specimens.
They are fairly widespread across Europe, avoiding the arid, dry soils of the south, areas like the Iberian peninsula, Italy, Greece, but are found as far north as Denmark and as far east as Russia.
They are not, as is often suggested, blind. Since they live underground they don’t tend to use their eyes much and their eyes demonstrate regression (so whatever species the mole evolved from would have had better eyesight and used their eyes more). They can discriminate between light and dark, as has been demonstrated in the lab by seeing their reaction to bright light. So there is some purpose to their vision, although the difficulties of observing moles in their tunnels in the wild means we have little clue as to what they use it for. It is suggested that potentially spotting signs of predators in their tunnels is one function of it.
Moles have…Odd hearing. Consider their environment and it makes sense. In fact, do a little experiment if you like. Take a long piece of tubing, have a partner at the other end and then tap the tube (or sing down it…Or shout your favourite swear word). See how clearly your partner can hear (or even feel) the waves of air, the sound. It should be pretty clear because the waves of pressure can deflect themselves off the wall of the narrow tube, thus the noise carries quite effectively compared to in open air where the waves can disperse, or even meet other waves from other noises in interference.
So it seems moles are more attuned to lower frequencies which could be useful for hearing any potential disturbances from above in their tunnels (such as hearing predators trying to dig into them). In fact, despite their reputation for being blind, compared to most mammals moles are also functionally deaf. Although as with their eyesight, they are actually well-adapted for what they need.
The truly remarkable sense in moles, though, is touch. They have exceptionally sensitive whiskers and very sensitive hairs on their paws, and using those they are able to sense a great deal about disturbances within their tunnels, even from things as delicate as air-flow! What they also have is a special extra organ, Eimer’s organ, on their little snoots. It utilises the same neurological systems as their sense of touch, so moles have incredibly touch-sensitive noses. This is an organ unique to moles.
So, European moles are great then! They are amazingly adapted, have a unique touch organ, big flipper feet so they basically swim through soil, they eat lots of earthworms (in fact earthworm density in soil is both a correlate to presence and population of moles as well as health of the soil), they aerate soil by digging their tunnels, possibly assisting in maintaining a healthy water table by facilitating flow from their preferred medium-damp soil (they dislike wet soil, or dry soil) to the wetter lands, rivers and streams. What’s the problem?
Ooh, this is gonna hurt.
They make garden not look nice.
Moles are considered a domestic pest because where they tend to dig they leave behind mounds of earth on the surface, known as mole hills, that ‘spoil’ lawns. They may also dig and disrupt roots of plants and flowers. In a fully natural habitat this is probably a good thing and a valuable ecosystem service but when it churns up some gardener’s narcissus bulbs they tend to get a bit aggy. It has been suggested they eat some bulbs, roots and tubers but it is exceptionally rare to find plant matter in the stomach of moles, with estimations of about 10-30% of their daily diet being vegetable matter.
In terms of agriculture the concern is that livestock can get their legs stuck in holes and tunnels left by moles and injure themselves but, again, the ecosystem service provided by the mole enriches the soil and thus improves the quality of the pasture so, has anyone done a cost-benefit analysis on how much is gained versus how much is lost? How common is it, even, for a cow to break its leg in a mole hole?
So, here in Europe, particularly in the UK, we go to great measures to persecute our moles. The most humane ways of dealing with them involve trapping and releasing, but moles travel overground to find good food sources so unless you know a good, wild area to put them you’re basically just making them someone else’s problem. I know there are ‘humane’ solutions that effectively involve torturing the animal’s senses until it desperately wants to leave, usually with a sonic (sound based) device. Traps are incredibly common, but professional services tend to just use poison. I’m sure pumping poison into underground tunnels in the soil beneath your garden is great for keeping the plants and the ecosystem nice and healthy. A lot of people probably still do it the old fashioned way and dig them up and hit them with a shovel. Welcome to the ‘civilised’ West.
So what about the plateau pika?
Pikas are cute little bastards in the order lagomorpha, the same order as rabbits and hares. No, they are not rodents. Though they share some similarities (specifically the ever-growing incisors), and pika, rabbits etc. are often confused as rodents, the lagomorphs are a completely different.
In terms of size and weight the plateau pika and the European mole are not dissimilar. Pika are probably a little larger, 15-18cm in length, around 140g in weight. They are almost uniformly an amber-tan colour fading into a white belly, so do not have the variation in coat colours that moles do.
This is likely because of the moles subterranean lifestyle, the mole spends most of its time underground, only coming to the surface to move territory, search for a mate, or find nesting materials. Pika spend a lot more time above ground where they can be potential out-in-the-open prey for foxes, cats and birds of prey, so they have a coat colour adapted to blend in with their steppe, meadow and grassland habitat, namely earth-coloured.
There are many species of pika but the plateau pika lives across the Tibetan plateau, with their territory potentially crossing from Pakistan, through India, Nepal and into China.
Unlike the mole the pika doesn’t have a lot of unique senses or biological weirdness going on. Very much like the mole the pika is a burrowing species and this behaviour has led to it being considered a crop, livestock and soil-ruining pest.
Now, since I didn’t get to use 700 words describing the pika to you because it’s basically a spherical rabbit with smaller ears, I’m going to tell you a story from my uni days again.
It was during an ‘Ethics in Biology’ workshop – being an obnoxious, self-righteous, opinionated contrarian it was both my most, and least, favourite class. We were discussing invasive species and the conversation was about the introduction of the cane toad into Australia in the 1930s to control beetle species that were detrimental to sugar cane crops.
Whilst the releases were limited the problems were two-fold. One, the cane toads were shit at hunting the beetles, in fact they ate a bunch of other stuff instead. Two, despite the limited release it turned out they really liked fucking in Australia and they spread rapidly.
I might tell this story in more detail another time so I’ll leave it there for now but my response was.
“Surely someone should have thought about this beforehand?”
To which I received the reply.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight.”
And thus I responded.
“BUT THIS IS BLOODY FORESIGHT I’M TALKING ABOUT HERE!”
The point is I’m naturally cautious as a biologist. I am aware of the delicate balance nature holds itself in and any disruption of that balance, even if the intention of that disruption is good, needs to be carefully considered. Not only do the immediate effects need to be carefully considered, but the non-immediate ones. Not only do the proximal effects, the effects close in proximity to this disruption, need to be considered, but the radial effects, how this disruption spreads outward, needs to be considered as well. Not only do you need to think about the disruption on the target species, but all the species in the immediate area that could be affected by the disruption to the target species need to be considered as well.
Any potential disruption to an ecosystem that does not consider all of these things with due respect for the tangled, chaotic mess that life and biology are, gets in the fucking bin! You just don’t do it!
Well much like idiots with moles in the UK and Europe, the Chinese government disagreed, and set about a plan for almost exterminating the plateau pika across various parts of its territory in China. One of the means of doing this was by feeding pika rice infected with Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism. Do you know how many preliminary investigations I can find into the potential impact of this on species that eat pika? None. Do you know how much data or impact assessment I can find for exactly how this has affected any predatory species eating botulin infected pika? None. SOMEONE IS NOT DOING THEIR FUCKING JOB AND IT MAKES ME FUCKING ANGRY!
Subsequent studies have found pika have an effect similar to moles, their aerate the soil, improving soil fertility, improving grass growth, they probably help with seed dispersal, they are very useful in terms of ensuring adequate water retention from their upland habitat, preventing it from flowing into the lowlands too rapidly, thus preventing flooding and a more constant water balance to many of Asia’s most important rivers such as the Yangtza, the Mekong and the Indus, they are also a vital food for birds of prey and, specifically the Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata) which a study showed was pretty much entirely dependent on the plateau pika for food within that habitat. It’s like Bob Marley only instead of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ it’s ‘No Pika, No Fox.’
Their burrows are also used by various other species (birds and lizards especially) for their own nesting or housing needs…yadda, yadda, yadda.
They’re a keystone species. A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its resident habitat and ecosystem. They are a glue that holds an ecosystem together and a disruption to them is a disruption to the whole damn thing.
And these pika are poisoned, regularly. Why? Well because the Tibetan highland habitat started to degrade and it was noticed that there were a lot more pika than there used to be so therefore the problem must be that pika are degrading the habitat, right? And absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the habitat degradation coincided with the increased use of upland meadows for livestock pasture, and the pika merely moved in because they are capable of exploiting a slightly degraded habitat? Of course they spread like wild-fire, too. Obviously this is because they are a ridiculous, over-breeding pest and nothing to do with persecution of predatory species like brown bears, Tibetan fox, wild cats, birds of prey, owls, etc. by the same farmers who fucked up the ecosystem.
It’s all one big fucking blindspot and it infuriates me, it really does. Talk about moles being blind, humans can’t see what’s right in front of their fucking stupid faces sometimes.
So here we go again! Isn’t this just another Asian-bashing, anti-China, racist hate story!?
That’s the point of contrasting the mole and the pika! I could add the US prairie dog, like the mole another pika analogue that is regularly poisoned across its habitats at the expense of tax-payers with the full support of local government. I could talk about the UK badger cull, a ridiculous proposal to reduce bovine tuberculosis numbers by killing the badgers that were alleged to be spreading it that has been demonstrably ineffective and had little to say about the fact that livestock farming has become increasingly intensive and the single biggest vector of bovine tuberculosis comes as no surprise to anyone with a functioning fucking brain because it’s bloody cows! It’s like trying to stop human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 by killing the fucking bats it is suggested to have originated in! IT’S STUPID AND USELESS! It won’t work, it takes a modicum of predictive power, it takes just a tiny bit of doubtful foresight, just a little, actually achievable, human cognitive prescience to go “Eh, that might not work…” and yet time after time we persecute an animal for our own failures under the guise of “we’re helping!”
Over the course of these articles as much as I am interested in exploring the amazing animals involved and offering them some sort of redemption from these negative opinions we have of them what has really been sucking me in, mentally, cognitively and emotionally, is our relationships with the natural world and how they are formed. Also, how we express those relationships that have developed.
The humble little mole, this worm-munching half-blind, half-deaf burrower is considered a ‘pest’ in the UK when it enriches and aerates the soil, provides valuable services to the fertility of the soil, doesn’t bite people, doesn’t bother people, doesn’t spread diseases and, in fact, doesn’t cause any ‘trouble’ at all. No, the humble little mole is considered a pest because it makes people’s gardens and flowers not look as nice and neat as they want.
What the fuck!?
The pika, a species that took advantage of a habitat over-exploited by humans, that revelled in the persecution of its natural predators and the sheer explosion in numbers that can follow that is persecuted not because it ruined the habitat (it was blamed for it, but people did it), not because it killed off all of its competition and then ran rampant (people did that), not because it ruins the soil, not because it disrupts the ecosystem, not because it causes significant flooding from its activities on a plateau that supplies the sources of fresh water to approximately 20% of the global population and not because it did anything wrong. It’s the opposite! Some governments (Mongolia, for example) have listened to national and international communities calling for a rethink on the treatment of Pika. China hasn’t.
When looking at animals like aye-aye or wolves we are looking at species that have a long, storied history of interactions with people. Their reputations have been built up over a long time and our fears of them, our aversions to them, no matter how unfounded, how non-real, can at least be considered in a greater context than “they’re just inconvenient, or a scapegoat.”
But most of the species mentioned today, the mole, the pika, the prairie dog, the badger. These are scapegoats, these are little more than inconveniences being blamed for nuanced problems that require well thought out, compassionate and science-based solutions.
The persecution of pika did not start until the 1950s. It’s a good reminder to us that our ideas about animals, our relationships with them, the stories about them we tell ourselves, and the actions we perform relating to those stories, are not all fixed or innate. Humans are scared of snakes and there is sufficient evidence to suggest this is justifiably so based upon historical predation of primates by snakes. This may be a legend, a tale of a species and our interpretation of it, that may be so old it’s genetic! But there’s no such history for the pika. Pika did not eat our pre-human, primate ancestors. This is a new relationship, a new opinion and a perfect demonstration of how attitudes can and do change over time.
In this case it is unfortunate to the health of the Tibetan plateau ecosystem, to the pika itself, and to us and our relationship with biodiversity, that the change in attitude was for the negative. But it also demonstrates change is possible for the positive too. We can change our minds. We can reframe our relationships with the species that surround us and develop a new respect for them, understanding for them, and create new legends, new stories, new reputations to pass down to future generations so that they can avoid making the foolish, foresight-lacking mistakes that we and the generations before us have made.
Moles and pika, they enrich their natural worlds. Humans, we’re sadly in the habit of cheapening it.
Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps