The noble mole

The first photo, from a Wikipedia website, is of an unknown European mole I used for my photo of the week last week; a photo of an actual Townsend’s mole, taken from the “Sunrise Pest Management” of Tacoma website, is below the first photo. I can’t tell the difference, can you?


The Townsend’s Mole, Scapanus townsendii was first described and named by John Kirk Townsend, who in 1834 joined entrepreneur and explorer Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth on his 2nd journey to Oregon from the east. Nathaniel Wyeth built a fort, Fort William, on Wappatoo Island, which is now known as Sauvie Island just outside of Portland Oregon.

 Wyeth could not compete in business with Dr. John McLoughlin of the Hudson’s Bay Co. who was already at Fort Vancouver at this time and Wyeth traveled back to the east. Soon after this Dr. John McLoughlin purchased Fort William, demolished it and set up a separate Hudson’s Bay Co. operation in what is now Oregon City.

 John Kirk Townsend and his friend, Botanist Thomas Nuttall, who had also come west with Wyeth, stayed on in Oregon to study the animals and plants of the new land. Thomas Nuttall was the first botanist to describe the Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii which was named after him.

John Townsend was the first to describe the mole in the photo above and he was honored to have it named after him as well. Along with the mole, Townsend collected a number of other animals that were new to science, such as the Douglas Squirrel and the Vaux’s Swift.

 The Douglas Squirrel is the squirrel seen most often in the Pacific Northwest. The Vaux’s Swift was named after Townsend’s friend and fellow naturalist William Sansom Vaux of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The central chimney at Chapman School in Northwest Portland Oregon houses the largest known roost of migrating Vaux’s swifts in the world! There are several other chimneys in the Portland area the Swifts use, one being in downtown Oregon City.

 While at Wyeth’s Fort William, Townsend served as the magistrate for the first public trial by Europeans in Oregon.  The fort’s gunsmith, Thomas J. Hubbard attacked and killed the fort’s tailor in an argument about a Native girl, Mary Sommata, who he later married. The crime was ruled to be justifiable homicide due to the tailor’s alcoholism.

 170 some odd years later, while dragon boating on the Willamette River, I spotted some of Vaux’s Swifts hunting for flying insects by the Ross Island Bridge. And today I found first hand evidence of one of Townsend’s moles living under my vegetable garden. While walking back to my office I went past two of  Nuttall’s Pacific Dogwoods and that’s what got me thinking about how much we owe to all those naturalists who spread out all over the world in the 1700’s and  1800’s discovering, describing, and categorizing, the natural world.


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