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The lower jaw of Eotalpa anglica. From Hooker, 2016.

Paleo Profile: The Dawn Mole

The word “mole” is practically synonymous with an underground lifestyle. The little mammals that bear the name are supposed to be near-blind denizens of the world beneath our feet, tunneling through gardens for tasty worms and other morsels. And, fair enough, some moles live this way. But not all. The desman is a snouty mole that swims, some moles forage above the ground but beneath the cover of leaf litter, and the tiny shrew mole Uropsilus doesn’t seem to show any acumen for digging at all. Thanks to some tiny fossils recently found in England, however, it seems that this variety of moles sprung from ancestors that were skilled at scratching into the soil.

Paleontologist Bernard Sigé and colleagues named the critical mole in 1977 from the basis of molars found on the Isle of Wight. They called it Eotalpa anglica, and at 37 to 33 million years old it has stood as the oldest mole ever since. And now, thanks to tiny fossils sifted out of the Eocene rock, it appears that Eotalpa was already doing what moles are famous for.

Natural History Museum paleontologist Jerry Hooker has described the smattering of new bones. The feet of Eotalpa don’t show the swimming adaptations of the star-nosed moses and desmans, Hooker writes, meaning that moles did not start off as semiaquatic mammals as had once been suggested. And while the mole’s hands weren’t quite as extreme as some of its living relatives, their anatomy is more consistent with moles that are dedicated diggers. Even older moles, which Hooker expects might be found in Asia, may help flesh out how moles switched surfaces, but for now Eotalpa indicates that these beasts were underground before it was cool.

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The reconstructed finger of Eotalpa anglica in multiple views. From Hooker, 2016.

Fossil Facts

Name: Eotalpa anglica

Meaning: England’s dawn mole.

Age: Between 37 and 33 million years old.

Where in the world?: The Hampshire Basin, England.

What sort of critter?: A mole.

Size: Not estimated, but within the range of living moles.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: Isolated microfossils consisting of the upper and lower jaws, parts of the hand and arm, ankle, and lower leg.

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