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What are Some Burrowing Animals?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Many burrowing animals have existed, including numerous mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles (including small dinosaurs), crustaceans, worms, and even a few fish and birds. The start of the modern era of life, the Phanerozoic, is defined by the appearance of complex burrows in the fossil record 542 million years ago. These burrowing animals broke up the previously hard-packed and anoxic ocean floor, allowing much greater biological diversity as well as interspecies competition. Burrowing is thought to have evolved as a defense against predation. Many ecological arms races between predators and prey can be characterized as burrowing animals versus predators trying to get animals out of their burrows.

The most famous burrowing animals are mammals, including rabbits, chipmunks, moles, gophers, and groundhogs. The burrow of a single groundhog occupies 1 cubic meter, while the complex warrens of rabbits may occupy hundreds of cubic meters. Some animals, such as the marsupial mole, have adapted so extensively to burrowing that they have lost their eyes and hunt prey using only their senses of smell and touch. In Australia, burrowing rabbits were introduced in the late 18th century and have since reproduced to be out of control, destroying large tracts of the bush and leading to the extinction of many other species.

Though we are most familiar with mammalian burrowing animals, non-mammalian burrowers are also common, especially in the sea. Entire animal phyla, such as phoronids and mud dragons, spend their life in self-constructed burrows, living entirely using tiny cilia that reach out into the water. Some sea animals can secrete special chemicals that allow them to burrow directly into hard rock, albeit at a slow rate. Some of the most prolific burrowers in the sea are the polychaete worms, aquatic annelids that are expert bottom-scavengers. These burrows help them escape the jaws of bottom-dwelling predatory fish.

Some burrowers that evolved from surface animals have developed highly unusual adaptations to the dark, subterranean life. One animal, the star-nosed mole, has a sense organ composed of incredibly sensitive nasal tentacles called Eimer's organs. These are used by the mole to detect very small prey animals. The star-nosed mole is also known as nature's fastest eater, taking as little as 120 milliseconds (faster than the human eye can follow) to identify and consume prey items.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a burrowing animal?

A burrowing animal is one that digs into the ground to create a space for living, protection, or hunting. These animals have specialized behaviors and physical adaptations, such as strong limbs, claws, or snouts, which enable them to move soil efficiently. Burrowing is common among mammals, insects, reptiles, and even some fish species.

Why do animals burrow?

Animals burrow for various reasons, including seeking refuge from predators, creating a stable environment for raising young, storing food, or escaping extreme weather conditions. For instance, according to the National Wildlife Federation, groundhogs hibernate in burrows to survive the winter, while burrows can also help animals like desert tortoises regulate their body temperature in harsh climates.

Which animals are known for their complex burrow systems?

Some animals, like the prairie dog, are renowned for their intricate burrow systems. Prairie dog towns can span hundreds of acres with a network of interconnected tunnels and multiple entrances. Similarly, rabbits construct warrens with specialized chambers for nesting and escape routes, showcasing a sophisticated understanding of spatial design and social living.

Are there any aquatic animals that burrow?

Yes, several aquatic animals are adept burrowers. For example, the fiddler crab excavates burrows in mudflats and marshes, which serve as protection against predators and extreme temperatures. Additionally, some fish, like the lungfish, burrow into the mud during dry seasons to survive periods of drought, encasing themselves in a mucus cocoon, as reported by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

How do burrowing animals impact the environment?

Burrowing animals play a crucial role in their ecosystems. Their digging activities aerate the soil, improving its fertility and water infiltration. They also contribute to seed dispersal and the cycling of nutrients. According to a study by the University of Oxford, earthworms, often called 'ecosystem engineers,' can move large amounts of soil, influencing soil structure and nutrient dynamics.

Can burrowing animals be found in urban areas?

Yes, many burrowing animals have adapted to urban environments. For instance, foxes have been known to dig dens in city gardens, while rodents like rats and moles can be found burrowing in urban parks and yards. These animals often seek out spaces that provide shelter and food resources, even in the midst of human development.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Dec 28, 2011

@anon237278: It could be skunks. Not cats. They don't dig like that. I don't know if they've made it that far north, but anytime I hear about an animal digging like that, it makes me wonder if it's an armadillo. They're comparable in size to possums or skunks, and they live to dig. I just don't know if they've made it as far north as Boston. They've managed to get from Texas to Alabama, where we have colder winters, so I suppose it's possible.

By anon237278 — On Dec 28, 2011

I live in the city of Boston and being bothered either by skunks, opossums or something. It is digging in the dirt under my stockade fencing and making a mess. I have put a cinder block in one of the holes and it moved down the fencing and dug again.

We thought it was an opossum because we saw it in the yard but I checked and the computer says they do not burrow. Do regular house cats do this because my neighbor has cats and she lets them out. Help.

By anon114781 — On Sep 29, 2010

what animal would dig under foundation through cement and leave big pile of dirt and cement?

By plaid — On Jul 22, 2010

@win199 - First of all, you should look up to see if the types of snakes in your area are at all dangerous. The ones in my area are and snakes are usually burrowers as the soil will keep them cool in the summer time.

There are a few home remedies you can use, among them are moth balls, which I advise you to be careful with as the vapor is harmful to humans. The smell repels snakes, too, though. Also use decorative rocks and stuff with sharp edges for landscaping as they hate to slither over things that will cut their bellies. Finally, most do-it-yourself stores have snake repellent. I wouldn't advise sulfur, however, yuck!

By win199 — On Jul 22, 2010

We have always had a problem with burrowing animals like the armadillo - seems like they moved with us no matter where we went. We moved to the country a few months ago and have found a couple snake skins and a couple holes around the outer perimeter of the yard. Does anyone know if snakes are burrowers and if that's what I'm looking at? Yikes!

By leiliahrune — On Jul 22, 2010

@and77yanks - It sounds like one of three things: a raccoon, a possum, or (depending on where you live) an armadillo. To me, I would think it would be one of the first two and less likely the latter if it ate the meat bait, but I wouldn't put it past the armadillo either.

The question to ask is whether or not there is additional damage around your home? Is your trash or home ravaged or is the destruction minimal and this animal only remains in its "home"? Also, consider calling an exterminator, they can often times tell you without much research and can also offer humane ways of relieving your problems. Hope that helps!

By and77yanks — On Oct 23, 2009

We have an animal which has burrowed or denned under an outbuilding. We are unable to trap it (It ate our meat bait) and have no idea what it is. The entry hole is about 5" in diameter. Help!

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics,...

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