How important is your sense of touch?
If you closed your eyes, and tried to make your way through an obstacle course by using touch alone, how far do you think you’d get?
By touching the objects around you, you might get a vague idea of what’s coming up, but apart from that, you’d be stumbling through the world of the unknown.
What would it be like to have a sense of touch strong enough to safely accomplish this challenge?
This cute little fella’ is the Star Nosed Mole. Despite looking like something out of science fiction, the mole’s weird snout actually plays a vital role in its survival.
Hidden within its unique organ are over 100, 000 nerve fibers, that’s five times more than the amount found on the human hand, all contained within a space no bigger than your fingertip.
Because the mole’s eyes are pretty well useless, it relies on its nerve-filled appendages to navigate the world around it.
Whenever its nose touches soil, a new star-shaped mental image is created, allowing the mole to piece together a picture of where he is.
Is this enough to make up for a complete lack of sight?
How did this ability make them the world’s fastest eater?
And why is this bizarre organ beneficial to our health?
For one reason or another, we humans seem to like watching food get eaten really quickly. Don’t believe me? Just look on the internet.
You could find the world’s fastest pizza eater, hotdog eater, even garlic eater. But none of them would hold a candle to the Star Nosed Mole.
This mole can locate, identify, and devour its food in a mere 227 miliseconds. To put that in perspective, it takes most people 650 miliseconds to brake after seeing a red light.
There are several body features that make this feat possible. The moles have heavily clawed arms that allow them to quickly dig through the soily habitats of their prey. Once they have uncovered their next meal, their unusual tweezer shaped teeth specialize in snapping up the small creatures.
But the Star Nosed mole’s most important feature is its sense of touch. Unlike most other species of mole, the Star Nosed variety has an entire extra cortex in their brain devoted to touch. This allows for an extremely fast transfer of information to the animal’s brain.
At the center of their starry nose is an area called the touch fovea. It focuses the touch information, the same way our retinas focus our sight information. As the moles explore, they shift their star to focus the fovea on new areas of interest, just like how we shift our eyes while reading words on a screen.
The star is arguably the most sensitive touch organ found on any mammal, and it has potential to change our understandings of touch and pain. The skin of the appendages resemble a cobbled road, covered with thousands of tiny sensory receptors, the same kind that have been detected in mice and humans.
Through studying these creatures, researchers have identified genes that may control touch and pain. Further research could result in the development of much needed drugs and therapies to treat chronic pain.
So while they may be a little freaky looking, and they may not have the best table manners, they may end up being a key to modern medicine.