Nature uses every nook and cranny—even the ground underfoot. Hidden from view but often just inches below the surface, animals search for food, raise their babies, escape the weather and hide from predators. Want to shed some light on these creatures of the underworld? Then watch your step, and let’s head down to nature’s basement.
Put your ear on a molehill, and you might hear the little tunneler’s tummy growl. Moles eat half their weight each day, stuffing their bellies with worms, grubs and other creepy-crawlies. Although their eyes are nearly useless—their eyelids are fused shut and covered by fur—a mole’s nose knows where to find food. Using oversized front paws, they tunnel quickly along, following their snouts from morsel to morsel.
Missouri’s biggest, hairiest (and some might say scariest) spiders inhabit glades in the south half of the state. Tarantulas don’t spin webs, but they do line their burrows with a silken “welcome mat.” The silk trembles when an insect skitters by, alerting the spider that dinner is at the door. If nothing triggers its silky tripwire, the spider creeps from its hidey-hole at night to hunt for prey.
Don’t let the cute face fool you—badgers are fierce predators. They prowl around underground hunting for mice, ground squirrels and other burrowing animals to eat. To catch dinner, badgers must dig faster than their prey. Armed with inch-long claws on their front paws, these beefy burrowers can out-dig a shovel-wielding human.
When it’s wet, toads can absorb water through their skin. But when it’s dry, they can lose water, too. To avoid withering to a warty crisp, toads take shelter in shallow burrows during the heat of the day. They venture out when it’s cool at night to snag insects with their long, sticky tongues. In the fall, the chunky amphibians burrow farther underground, digging nearly an arm’s length down to spend winter where frost can’t nip them.
Crayfish need water to breathe, but not all of them live in streams or ponds. Some, such as the devil crayfish, burrow down from dry land to find water underground. While digging their tunnels, these crayfish carry blobs of mud in their pincers, stacking it up to form tiny earthen towers at the surface.
Chipmunks stuff their cheeks with seeds and nuts then scamper underground to stock their nests with food for winter. This chipmunk better scamper fast because a hungry weasel is on its tail. Weasels are long and skinny predators, perfectly shaped to pursue prey through tight places. Will the chipmunk escape in its maze of tunnels? Or, will the weasel eat squirrel for supper? Who knows? It’s just one more hidden drama that plays out in the underworld.
Before starting a family, kingfishers find a steep riverbank near a good fishing hole. They use their beaks to dig a burrow, then the mother kingfisher lays five to seven eggs inside. Life gets hectic once the eggs hatch. Each chick eats about eight fish a day, so parents stay busy plunging beak-first into water to snag food. When the chicks grow up, parents coax them from the nest by waving fish from nearby perches.
Nichole LeClair Terrill