By Chelsea Jandreau
You come across a small hole in the ground. It’s two inches or so wide and has obviously been dug by some sort of animal. What made that hole? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “It’s a snake hole!” I would be, well, not rich, but I would definitely have a heftier savings account. While it’s true that some snakes absolutely can dig holes, most of the time that hole in the ground was actually made by another animal.
There are snakes in the world that use their heads to move silty soil or sand out of the way to burrow underground. Most snakes, no matter where they live, can shimmy and slither under leaf litter and down in loose topsoil, especially when the temperatures start dropping. However, snakes lack the claws and paws required to dig holes you might find in the hard-packed soil. Those holes usually have a different origin.
After hearing this same response time after time in many different places, I began to think a little more on why this idea is so pervasive. I think this myth that every small hole is a snake hole has to do with why animals dig holes in the ground at all.
Many animals dig holes for shelter, either for themselves or their young. Groundhogs, muskrats, moles and shrews build tunnels underground to travel in and escape predators. These tunnels sometimes open up into larger den areas that they use to raise their young. Some animals only use underground areas for a short time. Foxes dig large dens to raise their young, but as they grow up the foxes leave the den behind. Others spend so much of their life underground that they are physically adapted to live in these environments. Star-nosed Moles spend so much time in their dark tunnels that their eyesight is incredibly poor. They rely on the sensitivity of their star-shaped nose to feel where they are going.
Chipmunks dig holes for many of these same reasons, but they also use their holes to survive the winter. During cold months, they sleep for days at a time underground, and then wake up to eat food, sometimes also stored underground, before returning to sleep.
Since small animals like chipmunks, moles and voles frequent holes, snakes use this to their advantage. They may not dig the holes, but they can still fit down many of them to hunt these prey animals. This means that people see snakes enter and leave holes frequently enough to think the snake made the hole. Some snakes will take over an abandoned hole and shelter there.
So let’s go back to that small hole from the beginning. If a snake wasn’t the culprit, then how can you figure out what animal originally made the hole? It often depends on size. Animals are doing their best to survive, and spending time and energy building a hole that is significantly larger than their body is an unnecessary waste of that energy. Animals tend to make holes that are just large enough for them to crawl through. For example, a groundhog is going to make a much larger hole than a chipmunk. Moles generally leave a mound of dirt behind as they dig, whereas mice generally do not, so a fresh hole dug by a mole is going to look different than a similarly sized hole dug by a mouse. If you spot a squirrel holes, there will likely be eaten pine cones or other food items nearby.
There are plenty of animals across the country and around the world who use underground spaces to help them survive, from the prairie dogs who dig tunnel systems underground, to alligators that use large dug out areas on the banks of ponds or canals. Take a closer look and you will notice even smaller holes made by the community of worms and bugs that spend most of their lives just under the surface. There is a lot going on under our feet, and those holes in the ground are just one entrance to this underground world and one clue to figure out what animals are moving around underneath us.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.