A surprising number of animals dig burrows. Dogs and wolves and even polar bears dig dens for themselves and their families, but can they be considered burrowing animals? For the purposes of this blog, a burrowing animal is one that spends much of its life in its burrow and has a burrow that has a network of tunnels and chambers that serve different purposes, such as food storage, sleeping areas, or nurseries. Here are nine of these animals:
#9. Animals That Burrow Underground: Naked Mole Rat
This weird little animal lives in colonies that are more like those of ants and termites than mammals. The colony is dominated by a queen, and she’s the only female who is allowed to breed. As with bees, reproducing is her only job, and all the other naked mole rats in the colony do the work of raising the babies, protecting the colony from invaders, and keeping the tunnels and chambers in order.
Naked mole rats are nearly blind but do not need to see well in the perpetual darkness of their burrows. These remarkable creatures, which are found in east Africa, can go without oxygen for long periods, have a high pain threshold, and don’t seem to really age. Their lifespan is astonishingly long for a rodent. They’ve been known to live as long as 30 years.
#8. Animals That Burrow Underground: Mouse Spider
This robust spider lives in Australia, and the females are the ones that construct burrows and spend much of their lives inside of them. Mouse spider females are solid black, while some males have colors specific to their species, such as the red-headed mouse spider.
The burrows of this spider can be 8 to 22 inches deep and are lined with silk. There’s a chamber off the main tunnel that has a trapdoor and is used to protect the adult spider, her eggs, and hatchlings from predators. Some mouse spider burrows have two doors while others have one. Silken triplines let the spider know whether prey or an interested male is in the vicinity.
#7. Animals That Burrow Underground: Prairie Dog
The prairie dog is a type of squirrel famous for its “towns” made of burrows. It’s found largely in the western United States and Mexico. Though these burrows were sometimes problematic to farmers and ranchers, they play an important part in the ecosystem and the prairie dog is protected in some areas.
The burrow is built in a way that the prairie dogs that live in them can keep warm in the winters and cool in the summers They have good ventilation, keep the tunnels and chambers from flooding, and can be as long as 33 feet and nearly 10 feet deep. The burrow can have as many as six entrances and have chambers for babies, for sleeping at night, for shelter in the winter, and for hiding from or even listening for predators.
#6. Animals That Burrow Underground: Bilby
Another denizen of Australia, the little bilby has long, rabbit-like ears, a body like a kangaroo’s, and a tail like a possum’s. It’s a marsupial, and the female’s pouch opens towards the back, which keeps dirt out of it as she digs her burrow.
Bilby burrows are unique in that they spiral downward, which gives the animal an extra margin of protection from a predator. The tunnels can be 10 feet long and 6.5 feet deep, and a bilby often has more than one. After they’ve left their mother’s pouch, young bilbies stay in the burrow while she leaves to forage at sunset. Both male and female bilbies have burrows, and males leave their scent not only at the entrance to their burrow but at the entrance of a female they recently mated with. This is supposed to deter other male bilbies.
#5. Animals That Burrow Underground: Mole
The mole of the Talpidae family is perfectly built for a burrowing lifestyle. Its expertise at burrowing and digging has made it a bit of a pest in many places. The European mole, which is found from western Europe and east into Russia, lives in a central chamber from which radiate a number of tunnels. Since it lives mostly underground, the mole doesn’t need good vision, so its eyes are tiny. At the same time, its senses of smell, touch, and hearing are acute.
The mole has velvety, dense fur and huge, outward-facing front paws with strong claws and extra thumbs. The back paws are diminished, but its shoulder muscles are powerful. Moles love earthworms, and their saliva actually has a toxin that paralyzes the worm for a while. This lets the mole take it back to a chamber used as a larder so it can eat the worm fresh later on. Interestingly, moles are good swimmers, and the tiny tentacles that give North America’s star-nosed mole its name help the animal find prey in water.
#4. Animals That Burrow Underground: Termites
Though some termite mounds can grow many feet above the ground and last for centuries, they also create burrows, or nests in the ground and rotting wood. Termites are found everywhere on earth, save Antarctica. They build their nests of feces, soil, and partially eaten wood or other plant material, and there are some termite species that create many interconnected nests that are called calies. These nests are as intricate as any apartment complex and serve much of the same function. They protect the termites from inclement weather, predators, and disease and are places to raise their young and store food.
As with mole rats, there is a fertile queen and a king who is her mate for life. There may be a secondary or tertiary queen. Soldiers defend the nest, and workers do just about everything else, including taking care of the queen, whose abdomen sometimes swells so much with eggs that she can’t move. They keep the nest in good repair and care for the eggs and nymphs. Workers are also the termites who find food, digest cellulose, and feed their nestmates.
#3. Animals That Burrow Underground: Badgers
Badgers are also made for digging burrows, with their squat, low-to-the-ground bodies and long, strong claws. Most badgers are related to weasels and have the diagnostic long head and snout and small ears. They are found around the world except for South America, Australia, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions. A badger burrow is called a sett, and they can live there by themselves or in family groups called cetes.
Like the burrows of prairie dogs, the badger sett has several entrances and interconnected tunnels. The tunnels can stretch for 980 feet and can be 6.6 feet deep, with chambers for raising babies or sleeping. The tunnels are wide to accommodate the badger’s wide body. Often, debris like old bedding or even the old bones of dead badgers are found heaped at the entrances to a sett. There is often one large sett with a number of satellite setts around it.
Badgers don’t even have to dig their burrows in the soil. They’ve been known to dig under building foundations, walkways, and paved roads. In places where it gets very cold, badgers dig sleeping chambers beneath the frost line, and a number of them will sleep in the same chamber for warmth.
#2. Animals That Burrow Underground: Burrowing owl
The burrowing owl is one of the few types of birds that live in a proper burrow. Indeed, it most often moves into burrows vacated by prairie dogs. It’s found in the grasslands of North and South America.
This little owl is also unusual in that it is active during the day, while other owls are active at night. They are like prairie dogs in that they’ll sometimes live in colonies of other burrowing owls, and they sometimes live close to farms, highways, and houses. They’ve even been found along airport runways. Another interesting trait of the burrowing owl is that it will not only retreat into its burrow if it’s threatened but make noises that remind its pursuer of the dangerous rattlesnake.
The burrowing owl makes its nest in the burrow, which it lines with cow dung. This helps control the environment and attracts insect prey. It also spreads this dung around the entrance of the burrow. During the breeding season, the female incubates the eggs while the male feeds her, and after the chicks hatch both parents take care of them.
#1. Animals That Burrow Underground: Rabbit
Rabbit burrows are famously called warrens, and they are interconnected burrows. Rabbit warrens can be made by the rabbit or manmade in the form of pillow mounds. They have more than one opening and a number of chambers and are usually about 6.5 feet deep. Rabbits usually build them on slopes or river or stream banks because of the better drainage, but they’re able to build a warren just about anywhere that the rabbit can dig. Rabbits spend much of the day in their burrow and come out at night to forage.
When it’s time to breed, the female builds a separate burrow inside of the warren called a stop and lines it with her own fur and plant material. After the babies are born, the mother will close up the chamber with soil while she goes foraging. This keeps the baby rabbits warm and protects them from threats, which, by the way, can include their own father.