How moles destroy your lawn: the forelimb kinematics of eastern moles in loose and compact substrates [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Yi-Fen Lin, Nicolai Konow, and Elizabeth R. Dumont

The interplay between morphological specialization and kinematic flexibility is important for organisms that move between habitats within different substrates. Burrowing is energetically expensive and requires substantial interaction with soil to dislodge and transport it. True moles (Talpidae) have extraordinary forelimb morphologies and a unique ability to dig in loose as well as compact soils, yet we know little of how moles coordinate their forelimb joint kinematics when digging in soils of different compactness. Using marker-based X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology (XROMM), we tested the hypothesis that moles burrow using different forelimb kinematics in loose and compact substrates. We predicted that moles raise mounds of loose soil by performing powerful compacting strokes mainly with long-axis rotation of the humerus (i.e. pronation/supination), but shear compact soil away by performing scratching strokes involving amplified elbow extension, similar to most scratching diggers. We also predicted that in both types of substrate, moles displace soil rearward like other mammalian diggers. Our results support our hypothesis but not the predictions. Eastern moles (Scalopus aquaticus) move substrates upward using compacting strokes in loose substrates and outward from the body midline using scratching strokes in compact substrates; unlike the digging strokes of most mammalian forelimb diggers, the power-stroke of moles itself does not displace substrates directly rearward. Compacting and scratching strokes involve similar ranges of humeral pronation and retraction at the scapulohumeral (shoulder) joint, yet the movements at the elbow and carpal joints differ. Our results demonstrate that the combination of stereotypic movements of the shoulder joint, where the largest digging muscles are located, and flexibility in the elbow and carpal joints makes moles extremely effective diggers in both loose and compact substrates.

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