Star-nosed moles have chilly stars

Our study on star-nosed moles was recently accepted in the Journal of Experimental Biology! In it we (myself and Kevin Campbell from University of Manitoba) present on a curious observation that the fleshy, tentacled nose of the star-nosed mole does not show much evidence for elevated blood flow, even when the moles encounter warm temperatures. Indeed, the highly mechanosensitive nasal rays of the star-nosed mole thermo-conform closely with ambient temperature thereby minimizing heat loss without apparent changes in sensory performance. Because this was a non-invasive study, we have to use thermo-conformation as a proxy for blood flow, and discover that they really don’t have high blood flow to the rays!

Abstract of the study

The star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) is renowned for its densely innervated 22 appendage star-like rostrum (‘star’) specialised for tactile sensation. As a northerly distributed insectivorous mammal exploiting aquatic and terrestrial habitats, these vascularized nasal rays are regularly exposed to cold water and thermally conductive soil, leading us to ask whether the star surface temperature, a proxy for blood flow, conforms to the local ambient temperature to conserve body heat. Alternatively, given the exquisite sensory nature of the star, we posited that the uninsulated rays may be kept warm when foraging to maintain high mechanosensory function. To test these hypotheses, we remotely monitored surface temperatures in wild-caught star-nosed moles. While the tail acted as a thermal window exhibiting clear vasoconstriction/vasodilation, the star varied passively in surface temperature, with little evidence for thermoregulatory vasomotion. This thermoconforming response may have evolved to minimize conductive heat loss to the water or wet soils when foraging.

Gallery Images

Note: WordPress may have mangled the videos. Looking into fixing….

Bottom view of the star-nosed mole searching the ground with its star. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Bottom view of a star-nosed mole foraging on an earth worm. One of the world’s fastest eaters!
A rare video / timelapse of a star-nosed mole standing still. In this case it is grooming. This is the only time we observed the star showing any evident “body heat” warming up the star itself. Watch up to the end to see the brief vasodilation to the star before the mole walks off scene. Usually the star remains at or slightly below ambient temperature.


This work took place in Northern Ontario in the summer 2022, as the first sabbatical project I took on board this past year. Kevin Campbell was hosting two film crews out at his field site, and invited me to “tag along” (i.e. research) with the group. My lab been interested in the inter-play between temperature and sensory functions (plus a 4th year course I teach concerns neuro-ethology and sensory ecology/physiology, so this was a fun way to explore teaching/research overlap). Best (and only) two weeks I have ever spent working in a garage/film set. Also, no trip to northern Ontario would be complete without a picture of the resident loon from the cottage.


Tattersall, GJ and Campbell, KL. 2023. Thermoconforming rays of the star-nosed mole. J Exp Biol 2023; jeb.245127.

Link to the paper (50 free clicks)


We thank Josh Campbell for assistance with mole capture, and the British Broadcasting Corporation Studios Natural History Unit for accommodating this study. This research was supported by NSERC Discovery Grants to GJT (RGPIN-2020-05089) and KLC (RGPIN-2016-06562) and an NSERC Research Tools and Instrumentation Grant to GJT (NSERC RTI-2021-00278).

Data Repository

The data from the paper are shared in the following open repository:

Symposium was a success!

Just returned from the ICVM meeting and want to record my thoughts briefly here to remind me of the value of collaborations and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

I thoroughly enjoyed the morphology meeting.  What detailed accounts of evolutionary biology paleontologists and anatomists uncover is fascinating!  I could essentially choose any seminar at random, walk in, and simply learn about biology.  I was never bored, usually humbled, and never sleepy throughout the talks.

My reasons for attending this conference (outside what I consider to be my normal expertise) was because I co-organised a symposium with Dr. Ruger Porter that was ostensibly about using morphological traits to infer and understand thermoregulatory physiology.  We used the rather boring title “New insights into the functional relationship between anatomy and physiology in extinct and extant vertebrates” but in the end had a great line-up of speakers.  Sort of like chocolate and peanut butter, the mixture of morphologists and physiologists led to great discussions, and I hope some future collaborations and cross pollination of ideas.

Some of what they spoke on is still unpublished, so I won’t spoil their thunder by revealing it here, but suffice to say we had a great session learning on how the vascular system in the cranium is involved in brain temperature regulation, leading to fascinating discussions about the evolution of the artiodactyla.  We heard some brilliant work on using fluid dynamic modelling to estimate how much evaporative cooling and heat recovery would occur in select dinosaur lineages.  I spoke about my lab’s ongoing work using thermal imaging to explore the role of appendages (i.e. avian bills) in thermoregulation, which tied nicely into the paleontological work on cranial thermoregulation.  We also had two great talks on bone histology and metabolic rate in an array of mammals, where inference about the metabolic physiology of mammals can be drawn from traits preserved in their bones.

Kudos to all the participants (a very young and diverse crowd).  Here they are depicted in infrared:



Back row (left to right): Shoji Hayashi, Maartin Strauss, Ruger Porter.  Front row (left to right): Haley O’Brien, Glenn Tattersall, Jason Bourke, Colleen Farmer.

To anyone reading this post, please look up these authors and read some of their papers!  The kind of work we saw presented represent what you will find in the textbooks!