, Volume 185, Issue 4, pp 367-372

A nose that looks like a hand and acts like an eye: the unusual mechanosensory system of the star-nosed mole

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Abstract

The star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) has a snout surrounded by 22 fleshy and mobile appendages. This unusual structure is not an olfactory organ, as might be assumed from its location, nor is it used to manipulate objects as might be guessed from its appearance. Rather, the star is devoted to the sense of touch, and for this purpose the appendages are covered with thousands of small mechanoreceptive Eimer's organs. Recent behavioral studies find that the star acts much like a tactile eye, having a small behavioral focus, or “fovea” at the center – used for detailed explorations of objects of interest. The peripheral and central nervous systems of the mole reflect these behavioral specializations, such that the small behavioral focus on the nose is more densely innervated in the periphery, and has a greatly enlarged representation in the somatosensory cortex. This somatosensory representation of the tactile fovea is not correlated with anatomical parameters (innervation density) as found in other species, but rather is highly correlated with patterns of behavior. The many surprising parallels between the somatosensory system of the mole, and the visual systems of other mammals, suggest a convergent and perhaps common organization for highly developed sensory systems.

Accepted: 31 May 1999